Gender parity in science ‘generations away’

Female researchers remain comparatively scarce in publishing, with some fields to remain male-dominated for centuries

April 19, 2018
Girl in astronaut costume

Gender parity in science remains a distant goal, with men set to outnumber women in publishing in many fields until at least the end of the century.

An analysis of more than 10 million research papers in 6,000 journals has revealed a persistent dominance of male writers, with men in particular monopolising the senior author credits in big-name journals.

The study found that the imbalance was most pronounced in some of the wealthiest countries, with “strikingly few” female authors in Japan, Germany and Switzerland. It was worst in surgery, computer science, mathematics and especially physics, where – on current rates of progress – numbers would remain skewed for another 258 years.

“Despite recent progress, the gender gap appears likely to persist for generations,” the team reports in the journal Plos Biology. “The gender gap will not close without further reforms in education, mentoring and academic publishing.”

The study was conducted by University of Melbourne evolutionary biologists Luke Holman and Devi Stuart-Fox and environmental management specialist Cindy Hauser. They used computer text mining techniques to infer the genders of more than 36 million authors from more than 100 countries, and map gender differences in 115 science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine disciplines.

It found that, while men shared the spoils with women in 20 per cent of disciplines, they dominated the vast majority. Female authors attracted 55 per cent or more of author credits in just 4 per cent of fields.

All the male-led disciplines and two female-dominated fields – nursing and midwifery – were moving towards parity. But progress was slowest in the most male-skewed areas, with some predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach parity.

Dr Holman said that this would shock people who had assumed that it would take one generation at the most. “There’s a perception that everything’s getting better – if we just sit tight for five or 10 years, everything will sort itself out.”

The paper recommends interventions including reforms to academic publishing and peer review, better parental leave and affirmative action during recruitment. It says that “poorly evidenced” convictions about innate gender-based differences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics ability should be dispelled.

Dr Holman acknowledged that these were not new ideas. “It’s not that they haven’t worked; it’s more that we have only listened half-heartedly.

“Everyone wants equal pay and better leave and things like that. Maybe we’re a bit numb to hearing them, but it’s probably worth harping on more about those things.”

The study found that last author credits, which denote seniority, were particularly skewed towards men. The gender gap tended to be less pronounced among first authors, suggesting that women were at least getting opportunities as early career researchers.

But this was not the case with some of the most prestigious journals, including Nature, The Lancet, BMJ and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Overall, the findings suggested that women were invited to submit papers only about half as often as men, in the same way that they tended to be overlooked as conference keynote speakers.

The study failed to find any consistent explanation for the gender gap in factors such as national wealth, culture or approaches to school education. Dr Holman said that this was disappointing because it meant there were no obvious best practice cases for other countries to emulate.

Former Yugoslav and Soviet Bloc countries proved to be closest to parity, with women claiming 53 per cent of author credits in Serbia and Romania. Western nations tended to be less equitable than Arabic and Latin American countries, while Japan, where just 21 per cent of authors were women, had easily the biggest gender gap.

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