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The Institutional Impact of COVID-19 on the Biomedical Workforce

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2 years 11 months
11.03.20 By Marie A. Bernard
Creative rendition of SARS-COV-2 virus particles.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

The COVID-19 pandemic has made a substantial and likely enduring impact on the U.S. biomedical workforce and forced institutional-wide changes. But the effects are likely not shared equally. Underrepresented groups (URGs) face the potential for a disproportionate impact on all parts of their lives.

Causes for Concern

We know that crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic can precipitate a shift in organizational culture towards emergency action and expediency, and away from deliberative activities such as inclusivity and diversity [1, 2]. These changes can be seen in areas ranging from hiring decisions, academic committees and collaborations to, unfortunately, attitudes about incivility and harassment. The effects can span the entire biomedical pipeline, from undergraduate to senior researcher levels. The NIH COVID-19 survey, currently in the field, will help us get a better grasp on the full impact of the pandemic [3].

The need to maintain physical distance has forced many of us to use virtual tools to meet and collaborate. Graduate and medical schools have similarly adjusted by switching in-person interviews to a virtual format. What appears at first glance to be equitable, can have a deleterious effect on individuals from underrepresented groups who may not have access to a quality web camera, stable internet access, or a quiet location to conduct an interview [4]. These factors must be considered to ensure that bias is not being introduced during the application process since unequal access can lead to an incorrect assessment of a candidate’s abilities.

An example of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact is its effect on underlying inequalities. Because female faculty earn 81% of their male counterparts, any reduction in overall compensation will disproportionately affect female faculty more than their higher-earning male colleagues. In response to the financial burden imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, several research institutions have responded by suspending or cutting retirement plan contributions [5-8], a benefit earned by 97% of full-time faculty [9]. These potentially temporary decreases in compensation exacerbate the existing gender pay gap and increase the burden on female full-time faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Need for Deliberately Designing Institution-wide Changes

Sometimes changes designed to provide a more equitable situation can have unforeseen consequences. The enactment of policies that do not systematically consider URGs can reinforce or even magnify pre-existing inequities.

Even taking a well-meaning, gender-neutral approach can have unintended outcomes. For example, policies that allow both men and women to stop their tenure clock result in men strategically using time off to be productive, increasing their chance of getting tenure [10]. Thus, a strategy to level the playing field for women instead accomplishes the opposite! This is a cautionary tale as we develop strategies for URG inclusivity during the COVID-19 pandemic and moving forward.

Parting Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced research-based universities to implement institution-wide changes. And while financial considerations may necessitate broad changes, it is imperative that we not lose ground on diversity and inclusion by placing an additional burden on scientists from URGs during this pandemic. As we’ve seen, implementing seemingly unbiased initiatives can have inequitable repercussions. There is a need to carefully think through any proposed changes and plan to remain nimble to adapt to any unforeseen consequences.

1. Ambady, N. and R. Rosenthal, Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993. 64(3): p. 431-441.
2. Bargh, J. and T. Chartrand, The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 1999. 54(7): p. 462-479.
3. Lauer, M. Encouraging Participation in Upcoming NIH Surveys to Identify Impacts of COVID-19 on Extramural Research. 2020; Available from:
4. Nwora, C., D.B. Allred, and M. Verduzco-Gutierrez, Mitigating Bias in Virtual Interviews for Applicants Who are Underrepresented in Medicine. J Natl Med Assoc, 2020.
5. Price, V.E. President Price announces new steps to secure Duke’s financial future. [cited 2020 8/30/2020]; Available from:
6. DeGioia, J.J. Update on our Financial Response to COVID-19 – May 2020. [cited 2020 8/30/2020]; Available from:
7. Schapiro, M., K. Hagerty, and C. Johnson. COVID-19 and Campus Updates: Financial Update. [cited 2020 8/30/2020]; Available from:
8. Mrasek, J. Message from the chancellor: Update. [cited 2020 8/30/2020]; Available from:
9. A.A.U.P. 2019-20 Faculty Compensation Survey Results. [cited 2020 8/30/2020]; Available from:
10. Antecol, H., K. Bedard, and J. Stearns, Equal but Inequitable: Who Benefits from Gender-Neutral Tenure Clock Stopping Policies? American Economic Review, 2018. 108(9): p. 2420-41.

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