On a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program earlier this month, a debate between two physicians over coronavirus-related restrictions turned into a brief clash over the role of gender in mainstream discourse.
“NEVER tell a woman (professional or otherwise) that she cannot speak with authority,” she wrote later on Twitter. “NEVER tell us we aren’t educated enough, experts enough, or good enough. We have every bit as much authority to speak.”
The exchange underscored a broader concern over the lack of female voices in media coverage of and policy debates on the coronavirus pandemic.
In coverage of the coronavirus, female scientists and doctors are cited far less frequently than their male counterparts, according to multiple multicountry studies. And when women are vocal, as with other policy debates and key areas of coverage, they often face online harassment and second-guessing of their expertise, several female scientists told The Washington Post.
The consequences are far-reaching. The marginalization of female experience and expertise colors the information available to policymakers forming coronavirus responses — which means interests and issues important to women may get underprioritized. This dynamic has, according to a recent study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, perpetuated a “war framing” around the virus, reinforcing the gendered stereotype that men are more reliable in emergencies and as decision-makers.
Since reports of the novel coronavirus began circulating in January, the world has been inundated with news and perspectives. Male scientists and physicians have played an outsize role in global efforts to make sense of the virus.
“The pandemic exacerbated the lack of women’s voices,” said Muge Cevik, who works on infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “It just reinforced the prevailing gender norm in which men continue to be allocated to leadership roles, speaking to media.”
Last month’s Gates Foundation report, written by audience researcher Luba Kassova, analyzed coronavirus coverage published in mainstream publications online in the United Kingdom, the United States, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and India. The study focused on articles identified by Google’s news search engine as highly ranked between March 1 and April 15. It found that women are “worryingly marginalized.” On average, every female voice in a coronavirus story was “drowned out” by at least three male interviewees, the study concluded.
“Women were four times less likely to feature as experts and commentators” in stories on the coronavirus, the study found. When cited, “women are more likely to be used as sources sharing subjective views than experts sharing authoritative expertise,” according to the report. Women constituted 19 percent of experts quoted overall and were less likely to feature as protagonists in coronavirus stories.
The trend has been documented elsewhere. A report published last month by the French Ministry of Culture and the ministry responsible for gender equality found that during the country’s coronavirus lockdown this spring, “newspapers devote[d] a predominant place to male personalities in their content.” More than 83 percent of the people pictured on the front page of major newspapers during this period were men, who also wrote a majority of opinion pieces.
A recent University of Zurich study calculated that women made up two of the 30 scientists most frequently cited by the Swiss media in coronavirus coverage during the first half of the year.
The experiences of female scientists and medical experts echo across sectors. Statistically, few women are part of national-level decision-making processes on the coronavirus, although 69 percent of health professionals around the globe are women. For working mothers and women from minority and marginalized communities, many disparities are growing even deeper amid school and economic disruptions.
“There are lots of women who are working really hard [on coronaviruses-related research] and they don’t make it into the media or policy advisories,” said Emma Hodcroft, one of the two female scientists among the group most widely cited in Switzerland, who studies and tracks viruses at the University of Basel.
In May, 35 female scientists from across North America and Europe co-authored a piece in the Times Higher Education, a London-based magazine, arguing that the pandemic had worsened sexism and racism in their fields. “Women in science are battling both covid-19 and the patriarchy,” they wrote.
Despite their efforts, signatories of the letter told The Post nearly half a year later that little had changed.
Within the sciences, this dynamic threatens decades of work to close the gender gap, said Saskia Popescu, an infectious-disease epidemiologist and infection preventionist at the University of Arizona, as women may struggle after the pandemic to compete for jobs and grants with male colleagues who have accrued more professional visibility.
The gender disparity is additionally dangerous for public health overall, argued Popescu, who is also an external expert advising the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
“Male physicians with zero experience in infectious diseases and epidemiology receive more attention than females with expertise,” Popescu said. “We are losing so much critical insight and knowledge.”
Scientists interviewed said female colleagues are more likely to turn down speaking opportunities than male counterparts, a tendency they attributed to women being socialized to doubt their expertise more than men do, in addition to extra child-care burdens during the pandemic.
“Women tend to think that we need more years behind us to consider ourselves as an expert, whereas some men who don’t even have experience working directly with these viruses suddenly become the go-to face of it for the media,” said Amrit Boese, a research biologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada focused on coronaviruses.
The flip side, Popescu said, is that when she points out incorrect information she finds in interviews or social media posts, she often receives intense blowback online.
“The amount of harassment we’ve gotten when we have criticized publicly someone that has continually presented bad information and sensationalism without expertise is really heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”
Social media platforms including Twitter are critical resources for scientists to engage with and inform the public — and toxic places where tweets by female experts on covid-19 can quickly elicit personal and sexualized responses, Hodcroft said.
Joanna Maycock, secretary general of the European Women’s Lobby, compared the pandemic’s coverage gap to the one that pervaded during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, which she described as “overwhelmingly a boys’ club of commentary.”
The female scientists interviewed said they would continue to serve the public — and to promote and support one another.
“The real basis for all of this is that there are still fundamental systemic inequities based on gender in the world,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.