Female researchers ‘more likely’ to be accepted by US academies

Women now have a better chance of getting in than male scholars with similar track records, suggesting attempt to redress historic injustices

January 24, 2023
Source: iStock

Female scholars are now three times more likely to be inducted into several US scientific academies than male counterparts with similar research records, a new study says.

Economists including Nobel prizewinner David Card explored the selection probabilities for women and men into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, both of which have historically had men as a large majority of members – over a 60-year period.

Entry to the highly prestigious groupings has shifted in recent years, with women making up about four in 10 new members over the past three years.

Professor Card and colleagues examined entrants from psychology, which is at the top end of female representation, mathematics, which is at the bottom, and economics, which was historically at the bottom but has recently improved.

Their study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found evidence that female researchers were generally “held to a higher bar” than males between 1960 and 1979.

Between 1980 and 1999 the opposite was true, with women generally more likely to be made members of the two academies than men. Between 2000 and 2019 they became three or more times more likely than men with similar publication and citation records.

Each year, current academy members nominate and then elect a small number of fellow scholars to become new members. The researchers suggest that one interpretation of the shift in selection patterns is that “members of the academies may have decided to try to redress the past underrepresentation of female scholars”, a move which, in a field with lower female representation, such as mathematics, requires a significant boost to the election probability of female candidates.

The study found that the estimated preference for female researchers since the 1990s is smaller in psychology, a field with strong female representation, than the one for economics and mathematics.

But the researchers also note that repeated studies have found that female researchers face barriers to publishing in the most prestigious journals or receiving appropriate credit for their work.

“Women who succeed in publishing may in fact be better scholars than men with a similar record, potentially justifying a boost in their probabilities of selection as members of the academies,” the paper says.

Professor Card, professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that there would be a continuing effort to ensure an equal proportion of new fellows are men and women over the coming decade.

“That will mean female candidates have some advantage in selection, mostly leading to a lower age among female than male fellows at the time of induction,” Professor Card said.

“So very good candidates just get selected earlier if they are female.”


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