Last week, Katalin Karikó was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for her pioneering work on the mRNA technology underlying COVID-19 vaccines, which continue to save millions of lives worldwide.
She now joins 23 other women who have won Nobel prizes in the sciences, a majority of them within the last 20 years. They include researchers who invented a malaria treatment, discovered the cause of AIDS, and developed the CRISPR method of gene editing. They’re all symbols of how far women have come in science, technology, engineering, and math: In the half-century between 1970 and 2019, the share of women in the U.S. STEM workforce rose from 8% to 27%.
However, women left the workforce in far greater numbers than men during the pandemic–and those departures have had a lasting impact. Without course correction, our society will lose out on an enormous pool of talent.
The economic downturn caused by the pandemic was dubbed the “first female recession” for good reason. In the U.S., women’s employment plunged by 17.9% between February and April 2020, while male employment dropped by only 13.9%.
With the COVID-19 emergency behind us, women are returning to the workforce in droves–but those in STEM fields are still facing its professional repercussions.
Women published proportionally fewer scientific papers during the pandemic than before it, multiple studies have found. This disparity was in part due to women researchers shouldering a larger burden of domestic work, especially childcare duties, than their male counterparts.
But even as schools and daycares have reopened, the career impact hasn’t gone away, according to a report published in May by the National Academy of Sciences. It found that for women research scientists, the pandemic caused reduced productivity, high burnout, poor mental health, and lost opportunities for networking. It also reduced job retention for women in academic medicine, engineering, and science.
Those stalled careers and departures from the workforce are still playing out. And they come on top of negative trends from before the pandemic. Despite the gains of the last 50 years, women have remained persistently underrepresented in STEM even as their education levels have increased. Since 2000, women have earned more than half of doctorates in the sciences but received only 39% of postdoctoral fellowships and 18% of professorships.
We all suffer from this glaring absence. Women’s health issues particularly fall by the wayside when our scientific workforce isn’t sufficiently diverse. A study published in Science by Harvard Business School professor Rembrand Koning found that women researchers are 35% more likely to develop medical treatments for conditions that impact women, such as cervical cancer and endometriosis. If there are fewer women scientists, that ultimately may mean fewer new medicines geared towards women.
The study also found a critical shortage of biomedical patents for inventions targeting women’s health relative to those that target men’s health–perhaps no surprise, given that women make up only 13% of U.S. patent holders. In short, the lack of women in the biomedical sciences appears to be having a direct negative impact on women’s health, and health in general.
Achieving gender parity in STEM wouldn’t merely help women, though. In a paper published in the journal PNAS, a team of researchers found that encouraging gender diversity “allows scientific organizations to derive an ‘innovation dividend’ that leads to smarter, more creative teams, hence opening the door to new discoveries.” These discoveries will unlock new medicines for all patients and new opportunities for economic growth.
Closing the STEM gender gap will require schools, companies, and government agencies to better support young women who want to enter these fields, which isn’t necessarily an easy task.
Countries that don’t bring women into the science workforce lose out on economic growth, just as the countries that didn’t increase women’s employment in the 20th century missed out on decades of economic progress.
If we don’t bring more women into STEM, we could miss out on the next Katalin Karikó and future breakthroughs that could win Nobel prizes, save millions of lives, and change the world for the better.
Rachel King is the CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a co-founder and former CEO of GlycoMimetics, and serves on the board of Novavax.
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