Significant Gender Disparities Revealed in COVID-19 Clinical Trial Leadership

Less than one-third of COVID-19 clinical trials are led by women, which is half the proportion observed in non-COVID-19 trials, according to research led by Queen Mary University of London, University of St Andrews, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School.

The study suggests that gender disparities during the pandemic may signify not only a lack of women’s leadership in international clinical trials and new research projects, but also may expose the imbalances in women’s access to research activities and funding during health emergencies.

The research team searched a database of all COVID-19 clinical trials from January 1, 2020 to June 26, 2020 and recorded the gender of the principal investigator (PI) of each clinical trial, where those data were available (1,548 clinical trials). They then looked at the same information from clinical trials on breast cancer and type 2 diabetes as a comparison.

The results, published in the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection, showed that only 27.8% of PIs among COVID-19-related studies were women, which is significantly different compared to 54.9% and 42.1% for breast cancer and type 2 diabetes trials over the same period, respectively.

According to lead researcher Professor Chloe Orkin from Queen Mary University of London, “The COVID-19 pandemic offers numerous opportunities for research and leadership that could equalize opportunity in a new field, but the results suggest the opposite. The pandemic has reinforced the prevailing gender norms in which men continue to both allocate and be allocated the lion’s share of funding, leadership, and authorship roles. There is an urgent need to challenge the structural and institutional biases that favor men.”

Research teams that are diverse and representative of society are better able to generate a broad range of ideas and innovations that are relevant for all groups, Orkin added.

The authors explain that one potential contributor for the gender discrepancy seen in COVID-19 clinical trial leadership is the speed demanded by the research agenda during the pandemic. The sense of urgency in starting clinical trials may lead to an abandonment of any checks and balances around equality and inclusion that would have otherwise encouraged the involvement of women scientists.

Edited by Gary Cramer