COVID Could Undo the Progress We Celebrate on International Day of Women and Girls in Science | Opinion

Who would you draw if you were asked to draw a scientist? For decades, this question has been posed to students from Kindergarten through 12th grade to observe and track gender perceptions of the scientific workforce. Overwhelmingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, students will draw a man.

These images reveal an important gender bias associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields that persists even in young children. As children draw who they see in these roles, this likely reflects the underrepresentation of women in science.

While some strides forward have been made in recent years to increase the presence of women and women of color in STEM—a necessary step in order to change perceptions of who "looks" like a scientist—the COVID pandemic is very likely to set back the minimal progress that has been achieved over the past few decades.

Women in the workforce are being laid off in the U.S. for COVID-related reasons at vastly higher numbers than men. These rates are even worse among women of color. It's too early to tell exactly how these changes will impact the STEM workforce, but it is likely that gains made in representation among women as well as minorities (who account for only a fraction of the STEM workforce) will be at risk.

Within higher education and research fields, productivity has been especially hard-hit due to the closure of laboratories and subsequent disruption of experiments and data collection in many STEM fields, including biology, chemistry, and my own field of geoscience.

While many laboratories have reopened, my anecdotal experience in speaking with colleagues suggests that many cannot return to work because they are able to find childcare. It should come as no surprise that women in the workforce (including those in STEM) are experiencing exacerbated caregiving responsibilities, especially in single-parent households, resulting in massive reductions in work hours.

These issues may partly explain why more scientific article submissions (key to advancement for researchers) led by men increased for many journals during the early months of the pandemic, while submissions by women dropped.

How can we begin to recover from these difficulties and minimize further damage to STEM fields? One approach is to expand childcare infrastructure for employees working in higher education who have been impacted by the pandemic, including students, staff, and professors. Colleges and universities can look to the precedent established by many tech companies that have assisted their employees with children during this trying time by providing extra paid "time off" and subsidizing in-home childcare. As a childless person who is watching the stress and strain experienced by my colleagues caring for young children, I would celebrate any efforts to support their success.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also changing the way we teach, research, and excite students about STEM. Instead of lecturing to the mixture of happy, bored, tired, and engaged faces I'm used to seeing in the college classroom, I spend my days teaching to a series of blank screens. During non-pandemic times, I could easily catch students in conversations before the start of class or in the few minutes after a lecture. These personal interactions are hard to come by in virtual classrooms at all levels.

Research shows that social connections with both peers and professors are crucial to sowing the seeds of belonging that can determine whether white women and women of color ultimately graduate with a STEM degree. I am not alone in worrying that these limited personal interactions may reduce the number of women and especially women of color we see entering STEM fields for years to come. This points to the likely outcome that the advancement and even the presence of women and underrepresented scientists in higher education and the STEM workforce is likely to be set back by years or even decades.

Although interactions are limited by the pandemic, there are still opportunities for STEM professionals with a drive to inspire future STEM enthusiasts, including mentorship schemes through professional organizations, or simply by signing up to be a pen pal with a K12 student.

So, who would you draw if you were asked to draw a scientist? While the percentage of children who envisioned women scientists between 1966 and 1977 was less than 1 percent, this number has grown to nearly 28 percent in recent years, with almost half of girls surveyed drawing a woman scientist between 1985 and 2016. The tide is indeed turning, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, these issues need our attention now more than ever.

Christa Kelleher is Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Syracuse University's College of Arts and Sciences.

Danielle Larese contributed to this article.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.