‘Women’s disciplines’ get lower scores than male-dominated fields

Female and male academics alike suffer from apparent bias against female-dominated fields such as education and nursing, study suggests

四月 16, 2024
Woman busker playing the harp on O'Connell Street, Dublin city centre
Source: iStock/Derick Hudson

Disciplinary gender balances rather than academics’ genders underpin a worldwide skew in research grant rates and quality evaluations, a New Zealand study has found.

University of Canterbury researchers say that female and male academics alike suffer from an apparent bias against female-dominated fields such as education and nursing.

Quality scores of their research are up to 28 per cent lower than those achieved by men and women working in male-dominated areas such as physics or philosophy, while funding success rates are as much as 5 percentage points lower.

The differences between these fields are considerably higher than the differences between male and female researchers within each field, the team found.

“What is perceived as women’s research is valued less, whether it is a man or a woman doing the research,” the team speculates. “Patterns of devaluing women’s work affect all who do it, regardless of gender.”

The conclusions are based on an analysis of four datasets covering almost 350,000 researchers in 30 countries. New Zealand’s Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) yielded individual-level data on quality scores, while grant success rates were elicited from the Australian Research Council, the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the European Institute of Gender Equality.

Lead author Alex James said the pattern of favourable appraisals in fields dominated by men, and vice versa, had proven remarkably consistent in all four datasets.

“There’s so much literature out there that talks about women being disadvantaged, women publishing less, women being cited less, women just spending all their time doing academic housework and looking after students,” Professor James said. “What we found…is a potentially new type of bias against women. It’s not against the individual woman; it’s against the subject areas that are dominated by women.”

Campus resource collection: Gender equality in higher education: how to overcome key challenges

The findings have been uploaded to the bioRxiv preprint server pending peer review.

“These findings do not identify a causal relationship in which gender balance causes low research scores or funding success or vice-versa,” the paper acknowledges. But the results “are ripe for further exploration…whether or not overt bias is to blame”.

The team investigated whether the patterns could be explained by reviewers’ unconscious bias or inequitable grant quotas. Such possibilities proved incapable of explaining the findings on their own.

The team also investigated whether the PBRF score differences could be explained by factors such as citation rates or disciplinary age profiles. The only metric that aligned with the findings was publication rates, with more prolific fields generally receiving better quality ratings. Professor James said this reflected gender patterns, with academics in male-dominated fields tending to publish more frequently.

She said publication rates differed in many fields, and this was no reflection of their innate worth. It was unlikely that New Zealand researchers happened to be “particularly bad” at education or nursing, and “amazing” at physics, philosophy, engineering and maths. “To me, we just have this inbuilt prejudice. [In] fields that are dominated by women, we just don’t think the research is as good.”

She said the results echoed research by Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie, who found that male-dominated fields were associated with “brilliance” while female-dominated areas were considered “hard work”.

Each field is “different and should be judged differently”, Professor James said. “It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.”



Print headline: Academy biased against ‘women’s disciplines’



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Reader's comments (3)

PBRF is biased and flawed? And in other news: water is wet.
Why do you have a photo of a person in a dress playing a harp and busking to accompany a story about gendered attitudes towards research outputs?
"It’s not against the individual woman; it’s against the subject areas that are dominated by women.” Maybe encourage more men to feel confident that they will not be discriminated against if they want to work in 'female' areas?