In the spring of 2020, nearly all academic institutions went to some level of shutdown/quarantine
in order to slow the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2),
the virus that causes Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). For many universities,
courses were moved online, laboratory-based research was required to slow or stop,
and most on-site work shifted to telework. Optimistically, many academics thought
initially that this might lead to a surge in research productivity. Indeed, by this
point, we suspect that readers have heard that Isaac Newton apparently figured out
calculus while in isolation during the plague. Consistent with this, some of the authors
experienced or observed messaging from department chairs, center leaders, or mentors
telling principal investigators (PIs) that the pandemic situation has likely created
“extra time” for them to focus on writing grants and developing new ideas. Further,
well-intentioned suggestions included ideas to shift research projects from experimental
to computational questions; however, such shifts may represent a major research pivot
for members of the lab group and require substantial support from the PI. Even as
the pandemic persists and university leaders consider how to safely reopen labs and
return to fall courses, which will result in new upheaval to our lives, there are
still messages that quarantine might give scientists time to pursue new interests
or work on long-forgotten projects .
However, if scientific fields are seeing increased output due to time focused on writing/computer-based
tasks (e.g., publication submission, patent applications, and grant proposals), all
indications suggest that this has been a benefit for men in science, and not women
[2–4]. Discussions of these data have focused primarily on the fact that women do
a disproportionate amount of house and childcare [5–7], and options used to provide
support for this unpaid work have essentially evaporated (e.g., limiting outside workers
into the home for cleaning, day cares not accessible to children of nonessential workers,
and school and summer camp closures). Indeed, productivity gaps are being observed
for working women in many industries and at a broader level have been suggested to
be an issue for working parents regardless of gender due to the lack of school/day
care options .
While we recognize that the impacts of COVID-19 are particularly acute for women with
significant childcare/eldercare duties, we note that women PIs in academia carry disproportionately
higher teaching and service loads [9–11]. These roles have been repeatedly emphasized
by university leadership as essential in supporting students through the pandemic.
For example, the shift to online teaching requires faculty to develop new teaching
methods and provide additional support to students facing challenges with remote learning.
Increases in service work have been noted by authors who serve in general advisory
roles to undergraduate/graduate students (e.g., program directors). Additional work
has been required from various research committees (e.g., biosafety and human subjects
research) to support a safe return to research. While undoubtedly true that this work
is essential, there has not been recognition that this requires more time from PIs
and further disadvantages women from maintaining their research activity on par with
male colleagues. Through a series of online discussions over the past few months,
the authors have tried to identify “10 Simple Rules” to help women PIs navigate the
pandemic. We recognize that these rules will not adequately address the additional
challenges affecting women who also may suffer impacts due to other aspects of their
identity (e.g., Black, Latina, and Indigenous women or LGBTQIA individuals).
Throughout this piece we will use several terms that may have slightly different meanings
in different university structures. Our suggestions are aimed toward women PIs, meaning
women who have an independent research position; these women may or may not lead a
larger group or have a didactic teaching role. We use the term “students” to refer
to undergraduate or graduate students that are being taught in a didactic setting
and “trainee” to refer to undergraduate/graduate students or postdocs being mentored
in a research setting. Research staff would include lab personnel such as technicians
and scientists that are not independent PIs. Many PIs conduct research with both trainees
and research staff; therefore, the term “group” implies all people that the PI mentors
and manages. Finally, the term “staff” refers to administrative staff, whether in
support of the research or teaching missions of the university.
Rule 0: There are literally no rules
That’s right—the authors are going to acknowledge up front that there are no hard
rules for a situation that has been described as “unprecedented” an unprecedented
amount of times. Quite simply, the challenges the authors are facing may not reflect
challenges others are facing because of differences in career stage, family situation,
health stresses, degree that COVID-19 has impacted their locality, or many other variables.
We instead are offering 10 suggestions that we hope will be useful or adaptable to
others. In addition, we present suggestions to university leadership regarding institutional
policies that can better support women PIs—now and in the future. Many of these suggestions
are presented in more depth in —we are indebted to the University of Wisconsin
Caregiving Taskforce for authorizing us to amplify their efforts.
Suggestion 1: Find a peer group of women to provide professional support
It is well established that peer networks are important for women in science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics (STEM) . The authors are all members of an online
group for women PIs in biomedical engineering, which has historically served as a
sounding board for professional concerns. However, many have their own smaller networks
composed of women in their department/college/university, from similar racial/ethnic
backgrounds, or with similar family situations (e.g., single parents, children with
special needs, and eldercare responsibilities). We have found that maintaining these
connections has been essential over the course of our careers and are even more important
during this quarantine period. Examples to maintain connectivity included having a
virtual happy hour/lunch, sending messages/e-mails to show support or to share your
latest frustrations, or having a socially distant get-together. It is important to
keep an eye out for women who seem to be struggling (e.g., not engaging in normal
exchanges and sharing their stress) and reach out to them; likewise, if you are struggling,
you should engage your network. Knowing you aren’t alone and that your concerns are
valid is worth the time, as hard as it is to find the time.
Create and/or support professional groups for women PIs. Examples include Association
for Women in Science (AWIS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), or individualized programs
such as the Women Faculty Mentoring Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
. Provide financial support or relief from service to enable women to participate
in such groups. Wherever possible, these groups should provide networks based on both
professional interests and personal/identity concerns.
Suggestion 2: Say no to requests to do anything outside of your main responsibilities
Despite the suggestion that you have gained time from things like losing your commute,
recognize that you have lost far more time from challenges teaching online, working
with your research team remotely, loss of childcare, and simple annoyances like finding
toilet paper. So cut yourself some slack, and realize you won’t be able to do as much
as you normally do. Perhaps you say no to peer review requests. Maybe you pass on
a request to serve on a new committee. As things normalize, you can return to these
tasks if they are important to you. Alternatively, if you can’t do them now, you can
offer a time when you might be able to do them; the requesting party will need to
recognize that your future schedule could go through upheaval as surges of the disease
hit different areas and restrictions change. See S1 File for example responses.
Cancel all nonessential service such as assessment reports that can be resumed after
the pandemic with minimal effect. Suspend the tenure clock for probationary faculty.
Support women PIs who need to cancel external service work (e.g., editing and reviewing)
by making clear this will not be weighed in future promotion decisions. Conduct assessments
of teaching and service loads within departments to achieve equity.
Suggestion 3: Drop something
Recognizing that you have had to take on extra work (e.g., mentoring graduate students
dealing with isolation and teaching third grade to your child), something has to give.
In the best case, you would look at your workload and see something that really isn’t
that important, takes up a lot of time, and you don’t enjoy. If so, drop this task!
Alternatively, perhaps there are tasks that are necessary but could be delegated to
a group member or staff who needs telework assignments. Provided your expectations
are reasonable and you are able to provide mentoring support, accelerating others’
competency in tasks you normally reserve for yourself (e.g., proposal writing and
budgeting) has the potential benefits of giving group members and staff a greater
sense of ownership of the research mission, while reserving your time for critical
tasks. Similarly, if your class has a teaching assistant (TA), engage them to help
you improve the transition to virtual learning—insight from their own experiences
taking such classes could be very beneficial. More often, this will mean not completing
something you wanted to do but is not mission essential—unfortunately for many women,
this has meant not submitting a half-finished proposal or pushing off writing a paper.
So, we encourage you to look at your teaching/service load to see if there are items
that can be put off or not done; you may find the questions posed in  useful as
you determine what to keep or take on as your career progresses.
Or, consider adjusting your expectations for what your finished manuscript looks like—as
we know, “perfect is the enemy of submitted.” Likewise, look at your homelife and
do the same. True, your house might not be as clean as you would like, and you may
be eating more frozen pizza than you normally would tolerate. Remember that you are
not the only person accepting this as your “new normal.” We can’t forget that the
goal during a pandemic is survival—if you are keeping yourself physically and mentally
healthy, you are more than succeeding. Acknowledging these changes consciously and
trying to make choices about where you make cuts might provide a semblance of control
over a situation that has felt out of control.
Reevaluate tenure/promotion expectations, extend the tenure clock, and formalize changes
in writing. Provide adequate TA/grader support for classes. Make course evaluations,
which are often susceptible to bias, optional. Alternatively, if course evaluations
are done, make them developmental rather than evaluative in nature. Suspend requirements
for probationary faculty to undergo peer teaching evaluations.
Suggestion 4: When you have energy to do more than the minimum, use that in support
of women and underrepresented groups
This may seem in conflict with prior suggestions—and it is—but women know they are
able to pursue their scientific careers due to the hard-fought battles by the women
before them . Losing ground due to COVID-19 is a real possibility. We recognize
that advocacy of this nature is a privilege, and not everyone is able to do so safely.
If you are in the position to support women and underrepresented groups and have the
energy, pick a cause and lean into it. Also, recognize that this action can take many
forms, some of which may be a better fit for your individual situation. As examples
of larger/more public actions, you could lobby your institution for policies to address
the pandemic gender-related gap due to caregiving burdens , or push funding agencies
to close racial disparities .
Remember that small actions add up—perhaps you don’t have the mental focus right now
for a big battle or a position on a new committee. But if you are able to send an
e-mail to colleagues and administrators pushing for more equitable policies from the
university, you are contributing. You can share the names of scientists who are women,
immigrants, and members of underrepresented groups with your trainees to make sure
their work gets recognized and cited (for example, see the soon to be launched http://citeblackauthors.com).
Take the time to incorporate Black and other underrepresented scientists in your teaching
and research group meetings so the next generation recognizes their accomplishments.
And for white men and women reading this piece, remember that service related to diversity
and equity too often falls on the small number of PIs of color .
Ensure that faculty and staff who contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives
are compensated for their time and effort in these areas, and this work is included
in considerations of overall workload. Value these efforts in tenure and promotion
decisions. Invite women and underrepresented PIs to present their work and provide
an honorarium to cover caregiving costs for the time they will need to prepare and
present virtually so that they can fully engage.
Suggestion 5: Remember, you know yourself best
Maybe you thought you would have time to pick up a new hobby (or finish the many unfinished
projects you already have). Six months (or more) into COVID-19, you have likely accepted
that this is unrealistic. However, you know the things that have historically helped
you relieve stress. Make a list of 10 of them. Some of them may not be an option during
quarantine (oh, how some of us miss writing in coffee shops). But for those that are
an option, try to do 1 of them every now and then. Maybe you like baking—bake cookies
and drop them off on your colleague’s doorstep as the baking bandit (or just eat them
all, no judging). Perhaps a daily walk is your relief, or you can join a yoga class
online. You may personally find that taking a break from social media is calming.
It doesn’t have to be every day, it doesn’t have to be long periods of time—but you
have to find time for your mental health.
In the same manner, you know your group’s research strengths best. It is understandable
during a global pandemic to feel called to shift your research priorities to the urgent
problems at hand. Depending on your research skills, this may be a logical area for
you to pursue and well worth the investment. For example, 1 of the coauthors was doing
a sabbatical during the outbreak at a small biotech and participated in the development
of a new diagnostic test. While not her original plan, the skills and collaborations
she gained during this shift have opened new areas for her academic work. However,
if your expertise is not relevant to infectious disease, diagnostics, personal protective
equipment (PPE) testing, or other COVID-19 topics, it is perfectly appropriate to
maintain your research focus. After all, there are many important problems that will
remain even once the pandemic ends—and in some cases, they may have reached new levels
of importance based on lack of preventative care during the pandemic or complications
found in COVID-19 survivors.
Offer employees access to programming that supports wellness, including aspects of
both physical and mental health. Maintain a balance of support for research related
to COVID-19 as well as previously established priorities.
Suggestion 6: It’s OK to push back
Academia often seems to demand that you should be working at all times. And for those
in academia who do not have significant demands at home due to childcare or eldercare,
it is possible that the pandemic might be a time of productivity due to relief from
some of the daily interruptions of working on-site. However, perpetuating the myth
that we can all work to the same degree (or better!) than we did a few months ago
is very damaging to many women PIs. When you hear statements such as “everyone is
writing more grants now” and “since we have more time, let’s have a virtual conference
about this topic,” it’s more than OK to push back that this is not your reality, regardless
of the reason. You are likely to hear your voice amplified by others who were nervous
to speak up. It is time for us to instead ask the person stating this to take on some
of the work you have had to pass on (Suggestions 2 and 3), as a more equitable working
environment should be a goal for all in science (Suggestion 4). If they balk, this
is a perfect time to engage your network to vent your frustration (Suggestion 1).
We have provided some sample responses we have used (S1 File).
Provide training for department chairs and supervisors underscoring the strains that
women and primary caregivers will face during the fall and spring semester, paying
particular attention to how this crisis will be amplified for single parents, people
of color, and others at the intersections of marginalized identities. Facilitate an
education campaign for colleagues and students highlighting the immense strains on
women and caregivers this fall, to improve empathy for delays in responses or slower
completion of tasks. Normalize that children may appear during lectures or meetings.
Be flexible about meeting times and attendance for committee service since faculty
may be juggling multiple responsibilities at home.
Suggestion 7: Remember, you have some flexibility to make your own schedule
If there are pockets of time where you find yourself able to focus better than others,
do your best to protect them. Block these times on your calendar—both in the near
future and in the upcoming months by declining invitations for extraneous responsibilities
(Suggestions 2 and 3). Keep a “to-do” list of small tasks handy for those times that
you have just a few minutes or you have time but not the mental energy to tackle a
major project. You may find that knowing you will “get to it” is enough to clear some
mental bandwidth to deal with your stress.
Conversely, if there are times your family needs your attention, put it on your calendar
to prevent meetings from being scheduled in your family time. You may have colleagues
that approach their telework or family scheduling very differently from you; do not
put pressure on yourself if your approach radically deviates from those of your peers.
Again, trust yourself to make the schedule and decisions that work best for you (see
also Suggestion 5). Respect this right in your trainees as well—we can change the
scientific culture if we reflect our values. Allow them to set their own schedules
to fall outside the traditional workday window if that is a better fit for their situation
(indeed, with social distancing in many labs, this may even be a necessity). And yes,
it is okay to decline meetings that are requested at short notice (S1 File).
Offer remote work and online teaching options for all faculty, instructors, and staff.
Provide explicit policies that detail how faculty and instructors who teach face to
face can pivot to asynchronous teaching modes and flexible work-from-home policies
if an emergency arises. Utilize polling methods to identify meeting times rather than
relying on meeting times from prior semesters when childcare was available during
standard business hours—and remember that meal times and bed times may be particularly
challenging for caregivers.
Suggestion 8: Whatever help you can get, take it
This might seem obvious, but sometimes when we are overwhelmed, it’s hard to see the
options that are there. Help with work tasks may come in the form of engaging staff
who have limited telework—providing them with work may help them to avoid furlough,
teach them new skills, and potentially lead to lasting support. For those with caregiving,
help might come in the form of a family member who can provide childcare or screen
time–based rewards that give you focused time to work. With many partners also working
from home, discussions about the distribution of domestic and childcare responsibilities
may be warranted to ensure equity and the ability of both partners to pursue their
careers. Perhaps your kids are old enough that they can even help with some of your
work—1 of the authors tried (unsuccessfully) to engage her son in doing analysis on
ImageJ (NIH, Bethesda, Maryland). Another purchased a 3D printer and recruited her
daughter to help print parts for an OpenSPIM setup. Maybe this is the time to get
your children more involved in housework and cooking. Of course, these kinds of changes
may be an uphill fight so take them on in slow steps when you are ready to deal with
the next battle. Until then, refer to Suggestion 3 as often as needed.
Create solutions beyond Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for emergency leave and
workload reductions. Offer a combination of creative solutions such as a 1-semester
teaching release or course reduction, a 50% work option, etc. Repurpose travel funds
to subsidize emergency childcare or eldercare. Offer a sick-day bank that allows others
to contribute excess sick days to those in need. Utilize human resources (HR) and
School of Education to provide a database of local resources for caregivers and resources
for families homeschooling, tutoring, and support for families with children who need
Suggestion 9: Do your best to remember that others are struggling too—be empathetic
and work to build a community
In times of stress, human beings are wired to focus on themselves—the fight-or-flight
instinct is not about saving the community after all. This built-in response, coupled
with the natural isolation of a quarantine, is a serious challenge to overcome. Finding
virtual or socially distanced ways to maintain a sense of community with your friends
and family are essential at this time. As a PI, you may want to arrange such events
for your research group; many of the authors have done so and have found these to
be appreciated by our groups even though the activities were not elaborate or lengthy.
However, as you interact with others, it can be easy to fall into the pattern of comparing
your stresses and deciding that you either have it “worse” or feeling guilty because
you have it “better.” For example, while the authors have stresses related to the
pandemic and gender equity imbalances, we acknowledge that our Black colleagues are
dealing with racism and microaggressions on a daily basis. Women with different family
situations (e.g., single parenting) will be dealing with different challenges. All
of these feelings of stress are real and valid. Given the complex nuances of each
individual’s situation, we will all benefit from trying to be more considerate as
we work together.
So how do you remain considerate without falling into the trap of taking on the tasks
that your lab group or staff should be responsible for? This is indeed a challenge
that many woman PIs are dealing with—additional directives from university administration
combined with lower productivity from their group and staff are putting the PI into
a squeeze. We suggest that each situation is approached with empathy, while maintaining
your standards and accountability. For example, empathy may mean that when you assign
a task to a group member or staff, you ask them whether the timeline is feasible.
If it’s not, that may be a sign that in the future you should aim to give them more
advance notice. If a pattern of not completing work continues, it is then time to
ask for an explanation. Recognize that just as no one is fully aware of your situation,
you are not completely aware of your colleague’s situation. Those with younger children
may struggle with finding focused time to work, while colleagues with older children
may be dealing with remote school and developmental challenges that are unique to
socially distanced teenagers. Perhaps you can help the group member or staff using
some of the suggestions above to help them carve out work time and focus on the most
important items. This is also a point to examine your role in this dynamic—are your
expectations reasonable, or should they be modified? This may be an area where your
network from Suggestion 1 can provide you honest feedback.
However, if you find that the group member or staff is not able to work through their
challenges, it may be time to ask them to consider the impact of this situation on
their mental health. Depression and anxiety often manifest in the inability to initiate
or complete work tasks at the level an individual can typically perform at. Some group
members and staff may share their struggles with you; indeed, studies have shown that
students expect women faculty to be more accommodating of student challenges than
men . We know from our experiences that this takes up significant time/mental
energy, and we suggest that you direct students, group members, and staff to university
and community resources. If the situation persists, the next step may be to work with
your HR to arrange for a leave (ideally, one that maintains benefits for the person).
Provide leave options that maintain benefits for people at all levels at the university.
Support and expand mental health care options, and regularly advertise these resources.
Create funds to subsidize childcare costs for trainees.
Suggestion 10: Don’t lose your sense of humor
We know, there is nothing funny about this situation. Many of us have needed or will
need space to grieve deeply. However, our experience is that where you can share a
laugh, you should. In that spirit, we offer a few of the more “tongue in cheek” suggestions
that our larger peer group shared during discussion of this paper (S2 File).
Participate in social media in ways that build community and provide moments of occasional
We acknowledge that as academics we are privileged in this time of economic uncertainty,
as most universities have been able to find ways to continue to pay salaries for PIs.
Additionally, we are grateful for the rapid response from many universities that immediately
offered tenure clock extensions as an acknowledgment that this crisis will impact
junior faculty’s research progress the most heavily (although we would note that a
simple solution of providing each junior faculty the same option may not provide equity).
However, despite these policies, every author of this paper has hit her individual
breaking point at least once during this crisis. So, while we don’t have all the answers
ourselves, we hope that our thoughts will empower those reading this to realize that
they are not alone and that saying no is an option available to them to minimize burnout.
We also hope that this article, along with other commentaries , will provide fodder
for departmental, college, and university leadership to consider how best to support
scientists as they navigate these uncertain times.
While gender disparities are not a new topic in STEM, times of acute stress such as
the COVID-19 pandemic have the ability to magnify the impact of these issues. Normalizing
conversations around work–life balance, including equitable distribution of teaching/service
duties and challenges with caregiving roles, is an essential step for the scientific
community to realize a vision of equity. As we face the challenge of helping our students,
group members, and staff through this pandemic, we challenge universities to assign
additional value to teaching and mentoring, work that has been disproportionately
shouldered by women in the academy . In the best case, we will take what we learn
from this unprecedented challenge to generate a more equitable and welcoming environment
for women PIs.
Example responses for declining requests or asking for accommodations.
Click here for additional data file.
Additional humorous “rules” for women principal investigators during this challenging
Click here for additional data file.