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Gendered understandings of COVID-19 risk being missed as women are majorly under-represented in research authorship

New research from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Oxford has found significant gender bias in research authorship relating to COVID-19, which means that women’s views are not equally shaping the response to the pandemic.   

Women are under-represented as authors of research papers in many scientific areas, particularly in the most senior positions of first and last author, and this research published today in BMJ Global Health finds the trend persisting in publications on COVID-19.

The research team analysed publications on COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic in January 2020 to identify the representation of women in any authorship position, and as first or last author. Overall, women represented just over one third (34%) of all authors. Only 29% of the 1,235 papers assessed by first author were women, while this was even lower for last author at just 26% (of 1,216 papers).

“Our findings on the major gender gap in research authorship on COVID-19, and in the most senior positions in particular, mirrors the under-representation of women in other areas of science research; a trend that has persisted for years”, said Dr Ana-Catarina Pinho-Gomes of The George Institute UK, who led the analysis.

“There are many possible reasons for their under-representation in COVID-19 research. For instance, women may have less time to commit to research during the pandemic, they may also be denied access to COVID-19 research owing to its anticipated high impact, and such research may also be considered the realm of those in leadership positions, which remain most commonly held by men”, Dr Pinho-Gomes highlighted.

Crucially, this under-representation of women is likely to be synonymous with an under-representation of research pertaining to gendered issues around the coronavirus, and to the availability and interrogation of sex-disaggregated data, so research insights into COVID-19 may only tell an incomplete picture of the sex and gender impacts of the pandemic.

According to the authors, one possible solution to overcome the persistently low representation of women in authorship of scientific papers, including those on COVID-19, would be to allow voluntary disclosure of gender as part of the submission of papers to scientific journals. This would allow editorial teams to monitor gender inequalities in authorship and would encourage research teams to foster equality in authorship for the benefit of women and men alike.

This analysis was supported by a COVID-19 research grant from the University of New South Wales.