Less research credit equals fewer promotions for female scholars

Women are less likely to become principal investigators than equally qualified male scientists, Yale University researchers claim

May 7, 2018

Female scientists are less likely to become principal investigators than male researchers with similar publication records because they often receive less credit for their work, a new study claims.

Tracking the careers of 6,336 holders of postdoctoral research fellowships awarded by the US’ largest funding body, the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Yale University found that women were 20 per cent less likely to become a principal investigator than men.

While 60 per cent of this differential was explained by the stronger publication record on average of male researchers, the remaining portion “appears to stem from…women receiving less credit for their citations” than men, says the paper, “The gender gap in early career transitions in the life sciences”, published in Research Policy last month.

Such bias could be explained by the fact that male researchers, who make up the majority of grant application reviewers and journal editors, may evaluate the research of male postdocs more favourably than that of women, placing women “at a disadvantage in selection and promotion processes”, state the paper’s authors, Marc Lerchenmueller and Olav Sorenson, from Yale Management School.

However, it could also be caused by the fact that “modern science has become a team sport” and that evaluators deem “men on [mixed gender] teams as having contributed more to the research than women”, they add.

The analysis, which studies how many NIH postdocs between 1985 and 2005 later won a prestigious grant to become a PI, could help to explain why relatively few women hold senior positions in US life sciences departments; only about a fifth of full professors at top US universities are women even though they win about half of all PhDs or postdoctoral research positions, the paper states.

“Most of the loss of women [from life sciences] appears to occur within a short segment of the career and one relatively far down the line,” states the paper, which adds that their “under-representation in the field emerges in the space of only two or 10 years out of a career of 40 or more”.

Using the “leaky pipeline” analogy commonly used to explain women’s under-representation in science leadership roles, the paper adds that “it is less that the pipe drips continuously along the way and more that it is gushing at one or two of the joints between segments”.

“Rather than dripping out of the STEM career pipe every centimeter along the way, they appear to pour out at critical junctures,” the paper continues.

In addition to potential bias, other factors might also explain women's lower transition rate to PI, the paper adds.

“Even among dual-career couples, women typically shoulder most of the burden in childcare and in maintenance of the household” and also “often do more than their fair share of administration and service in academic settings”, it says.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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