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How to encourage gender equity in interdisciplinary research

A study into gender balances of interdisciplinary research teams shows that the presence of women is beneficial up to a point. Elisabeth Browning suggests ways funders and institutions can encourage their participation

Elisabeth Browning's avatar
3 Feb 2023
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How to successfully develop and run interdisciplinary research teams
Advice on developing and managing successful interdisciplinary research teams

Key Details

This video will cover:

01:25 The percentage of female-authored research papers in the top 10 per cent of the most interdisciplinary compared with men, and how interdisciplinary is defined

02:35 Study results showing that the presence of female authors on publications is generally positively associated with interdisciplinarity – however, team size is a factor

03:44 Recommendations and advice for funders and institutions to encourage greater gender equity in IDR to tackle global challenges

Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.


Hello, my name is Elisabeth Browning, and I work for the analytical and data services division of Elsevier. In this presentation, I’ll be discussing possible implications of recent work by my colleagues Henrique Pinheiro, Matt Durning and David Campbell. Their study investigated the question: do women undertake interdisciplinary research (IDR) more than men?

I’ll begin by laying out the context and key findings of the study and then conclude with some useful recommendations that came out of it.

Interdisciplinary research is increasing worldwide, and it’s increasingly leveraged by funders to tackle complex global challenges. While women may have a higher propensity towards this mode of research, evidence suggests that junior women scientists are sometimes discouraged from pursuing interdisciplinary work because it may threaten their career prospects.

However, interdisciplinarity may benefit the citation impact of the resulting publications, a factor often accounted for in academic promotion. Additionally, if women relative to men engage less in interdisciplinary work, this mode of research may not fully deliver on its promise.

Previous work by this team had shown that female researchers published slightly but significantly more highly interdisciplinary papers, those in the top 10 per cent, than male researchers. This seems surprising in light of advice to junior women scientists to avoid interdisciplinary research. Note that interdisciplinarity was measured as the disciplinary diversity of cited references in individual publications capturing the disparity, variety and balance of represented disciplines.

Because women had been shown to self-cite less than men, the team faced concerns that observed gender differences in interdisciplinarity could be due to a measurement bias. This could happen if self-citations reduced the interdisciplinarity of publications authored by men compared to women.

Could this prior finding of women scoring higher on interdisciplinarity be due to a measurement bias or other factors? The study team conducted large-scale multivariate regression analysis accounting for potential confounders and mediators, including a potential self-citation bias, to investigate this question.

Let’s jump ahead to the results. The study found that, in short, the presence of women authors on publications is generally positively associated with interdisciplinarity. It turns out this is true even after controlling for a potential self-citation bias. Those self-citations do have a negative effect on interdisciplinarity in line with other studies. And depending on the size of teams, our results suggest that a gender-diverse team may be associated with higher interdisciplinarity than an all-male or all-female team.

As an example, for a 13-author paper, the positive effect on interdisciplinarity of replacing one man with one woman slowly diminishes as the representation of women increases. In fact, the effect becomes negative near the point of gender balance on the team. Our results also showed the total team size is positively associated with the probability of a paper being in the 10 per cent most interdisciplinary up to a certain point.

What lessons and advice can we draw from this study and from the literature? If interdisciplinary research is crucial to solving complex global challenges and the presence of women authors is associated with interdisciplinarity, how could funders encourage gender-diverse teams? Many of the same strategies used for diversity, equity and inclusion (EDI) more broadly also apply to gender. Funders may want to require EDI guidelines from grant applicants that emphasise equity and lay out a code of conduct for team members.

Funders can also explore equitable funding strategies, such as altering grant selection processes and de-emphasising track records.

For principal investigators, best practices for creating and managing an effective gender-diverse team include equitable mentoring opportunities using gender-inclusive language, accessibility and challenging personal and team member biases.

Where applicable, considering sex and gender as part of the research design itself can enrich findings. Beyond fostering gender diversity, what else can funders do to promote interdisciplinary endeavours?

Institutions should make sure the structures and incentives in place encourage IDR. For example, institutions should consider alternative criteria for assessing IDR because papers may not appear in high-ranking journals and citation counts may suffer in comparison with disciplinary work. Also, IDR may require more time if, for example, researchers need to learn new skills. Institutions can also provide opportunities for connection and networking. And note that while these recommendations apply to everyone, they could be especially important for women researchers for whom existing structures may create barriers to advancement.

Further work on this topic would be warranted to confirm the study’s results and deepen our understanding of the positive association of women with interdisciplinarity, as well as its implications for career progression.

For example, are gender differences in interdisciplinarity driven by one or many dimensions of disciplinary diversity? How do each of these dimensions relate to the scientific performance of women versus men? Could such differences be at play in tenure decisions?

Deciphering these unknowns has the potential to guide research-performing and -funding organisations in supporting men and women in their interdisciplinary journey to achieve greater societal impact.

It would also help researchers make an informed decision when choosing to embark on an interdisciplinary endeavour.

So that winds up this presentation. If you’re interested in the methods used, I encourage you to read the full paper published in Quantitative Science Studies and available at the link here.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us. We would love to hear from you.

Thank you for listening.

Elisabeth Browning is a senior editor in research, analytics and data services at Elsevier.

Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

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