COVID-19 pandemic accentuates gender gap issues

During the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, a study by Cristina Bittante et al. (2020) highlighted that only approximately one in four prominent authorship roles (first or last author position) were held by women.3 A more recent study, published by a Swiss team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University Hospital of Geneva (HUG) in The British Medical Journal, now adds further insight into gender inequality in academic publishing during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Gayet-Ageron and colleagues compared the representation of women in prominent authorship positions in the two years before the pandemic (January 2018–December 2019) and during the pandemic (January 2020–May 2021). This cross-sectional study examined 63,259 manuscripts submitted to 11 British Medical Journal (BMJ) Publishing Group journals, of which nine were specialist journals and two focused on general medicine. Included manuscripts were categorized by whether the research topic was related to COVID-19 or not. Unsurprisingly, the results of this study showed that fewer women attained first, last or corresponding author positions of all manuscript types during the pandemic, compared with other periods (Figure 1). In manuscripts related to COVID-19, a decrease of almost 20% in the proportion of women first and corresponding authors was observed, with a 12% reduction in the proportion of women as last authors, compared with pre-pandemic data (Figure 1). Moreover, gender disparity was accentuated for COVID-19 related manuscripts early in the pandemic (January−May 2020) compared with the most recent pandemic period (February 2021−May 2021).

Figure 1. Comparison of prominent authorship positions held by women before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Adapted from Gayet-Ageron et al. 2021.2

Breaking down the glass ceiling: Action to redress the gender imbalance in scientific publishing

To be able to play our part in tackling gender gap issues, we must understand the factors that led to the drastic drop in scientific production by women during the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Gayet-Ageron and colleagues highlight that during the early pandemic wave, measures such as working from home and school closures were introduced. These early lockdown measures led many adults, particularly women, to adapt their work schedules due to increased demand on domestic and family tasks such as homeschooling. However, the study also revealed that as working life became normalized later during the pandemic, women’s research activities increased slightly to levels similar to the pre-pandemic period. Similar findings were featured in the Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care from The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR),4 showing that the pandemic more severely affected female than male oncologists, including reduced productivity and less time spent on science and personal care. The COVID-19 pandemic also created further challenges for women with children, with mothers experiencing a 33% larger cutback in research hours compared with fathers. A brief summary of this report is provided on page 66 of this issue.

At healthbook TIMES Oncology Hematology, we actively encourage female authorship and strive to publish and cite an equivalent number of research articles from both females and males. While we acknowledge that more effort is required across all scientific sectors to redress the gender imbalance issue, we encourage our readers to help us tackle this important issue head-on by breaking down stereotypes, the so-called “glass ceiling” that exists within their departments and research teams.

In this issue, please read through our open-access, peer-reviewed articles on antibody-drug conjugates in solid tumors, new treatment options in endometrial cancer, evolving treatment landscape of acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and a case report on benefits and complications after treatment with atezolizumab plus bevacizumab in a patient with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC).

Please do not hesitate to give us your feedback to help us address the gender authorship gaps in upcoming issues.

Dr Ellen Heitlinger
Editor-in-Chief (Interim)