As if another reminder was needed, covid-19 has proven, time and again, that women are very frequently the ones keeping everything running during times of crisis (and also during all other times). It’s also proven that, despite women being both visible on the front lines, and women reporting the high number of hours they’re working both for their jobs and in service of keeping their home life in order, most people will still bend over backward to center the work and experiences of men. Especially when it comes to women in science who are working directly on issues around covid-19.
In Times Higher Education, 35 women working in STEM fields co-authored an article detailing the myriad ways women, particularly women of color, are doing necessary, lifesaving work, only to be looked over for men who are often less experienced and less knowledgeable.
Neither epidemiology nor medicine are male-dominated fields, but women are quoted less often – sometimes not at all – in articles. What’s more, the lack of inclusion of leaders of colour is striking and disenfranchising for minority women scientists of colour, particularly as communities of colour are being hit hardest by this epidemic.
Even within our own institutions, unqualified men’s voices are being amplified over expert women because they have been identified through informal male networks, or have blustered their way in to social media and TV interviews and are therefore perceived as “high profile”.
The article goes on to talk about the fact that many of the men who are being pulled in to these higher-profile conversations, often at the exclusion of better-qualified women, are data scientists from tech-centric fields with no experience in public health whatsoever, or otherwise successful men who may be leaders in other areas but are unqualified to be deemed experts on the subject of covid-19. Like, thank you, Bill Gates, for your funding, but I don’t know if I need him to be the person lecturing me on virology best practices right now.
Of course, the concern is not only that women aren’t being recognized for the work they are putting in, but also that future generations will not see themselves represented in the STEM fields, which are notoriously unfair to women to begin with.
Not including women’s voices in the public discussion of the Covid-19 pandemic is a distortion of reality. It not only perpetuates the invisibility of women in science and leadership positions, undermining our ability to be taken seriously as experts and failing to provide role models for younger women, but also impacts our careers as we strive to prove the impact of our work to funding agencies, colleagues, and hiring or promotion committees.
Although the fact that likely over-qualified and over-worked women are being looked over for less-qualified men is upsetting enough, it’s also disappointing that the co-authors of this completely justified article felt compelled to include a justification. After years of working under these conditions and understanding the kind of backlash that often accompanies a woman’s choice to stand up for herself, the authors are clear in stating this is not about being desperate for attention. It’s about demanding what is theirs.
No doubt this article will provoke predictable responses: accusations that we are elitist; we are entitled; we have our priorities wrong; we are over-reacting; we are paranoid; and it’s #NotAllMen. Meanwhile many of our male colleagues will send us well-meaning private messages of encouragement, asking which women to follow on Twitter.
Journalists will ask us who to interview and if we can provide a list of options. The answer is yes, of course. There are lists of female experts; there are author lists on scientific papers; and there are academic websites. These exist precisely because we have been fighting for years to progress science in spite of patriarchal barriers. We wish that we could now focus on fighting Covid-19.
Can you imagine a world where women’s contributions, efforts, and work are recognized and the women who are doing the work are allowed to be the people talking about and explaining what they’ve done, without them needing to take the time to write an article asking for reasonable acknowledgment? Yeah, me neither. But it sure is nice to think about!