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Pandemic challenges and opportunities for gender equity in clinical research

Industry must act now to minimize effects of COVID-19 on clinical research.

By Joy Y. Wu and Pamela B. Davis, Applied Clinical Trials

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked global havoc, with millions of lives lost. The effects of the pandemic on health care workers have been especially severe in terms of mortality, burnout, and diversion from non-pandemic critical work. This impact has also been felt in clinical research, just as the importance of clinical research has become obvious to the general public from the wide reporting of trials of drugs and vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 control. We became concerned that clinical research would be negatively impacted long-term, first by the interruption of the ability of research participants to be examined in person due to social distancing requirements, and then by the damage done by the pandemic to women clinical investigators, who play a vital role in clinical research. These issues were brought to the Clinical Research Forum, an organization formed to support academic clinical research, and the Board constituted an Academic Advancement Committee to consider the problem. One of the products of that committee was a Commentary recently published in Nature Medicine on the impact of the pandemic on women in clinical research. We served as members of that committee.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women physicians and researchers, exacerbating long-standing issues of gender inequality in medicine. In the arena of clinical research, gender equity accelerates research excellence: we need multiple perspectives and all the brain power we can muster to maximize research productivity and quality. Moreover, women physician investigators enhance enrollment of women as participants in clinical trials, which is crucial to our ability to generalize from the data and to maintain the health of women. The upheaval wrought by the pandemic, which threatens the activity of women investigators in clinical research, also offers an opportunity to address the barriers faced by women in medicine.

For women researchers in the pandemic, rapidly shifting demands in clinical work, teaching, and mentoring hindered productivity at work. At home women have always borne a larger share of child care and domestic duties, with early career women physicians spending an average of 8.5 hours per week more than men, so women caregivers were most impacted by the abrupt closure of schools and child care facilities. Within months the disparities became evident in differences in publications submitted by women compared with men since the start of the pandemic. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women faculty is superimposed upon long-standing gender disparities in medicine. Although women now constitute over 50% of the entering class in medical school, and have been more than 40% of medical school applicants for over 30 years, progressive attrition occurs in the ranks so that only 27% of full professors and 18% of department chairs and deans are women. Read more …