It’s really easy to get caught up in a few anecdotes that make a lot of logical sense and believe that it describes the truth in the world around us. The government might tout some cases where struggling people can now afford health care, but that doesn’t make Obamacare a success. Just like Rush Limbaugh may tell the story of one of the few Americans who had to give up their shitty insurance because it didn’t meet basic criteria that everyone should be covered for, but that doesn’t mean Obamacare is a disaster. What you really need are statistics.
Similarly, I keep getting barraged with how big of a problem it is that women aren’t entering the STEM fields. Gender equality in the sciences are always said to lean heavily toward male domination. And even for the few that do make it through an undergraduate education, people always talk about how hard it is for women to progress in their careers because of gender biases, hostile work environments, expectations to raise families, etc. But where are the actual facts?
Well, here’s a few.
According to a recent study from Indiana University, there’s a gigantic gender gap when it comes to the number of women appearing in places of power regarding authorship of scientific papers. What’s more, those that do get their names attached to studies get cited a whole lot less than their male counterparts.
The study analyzed 5.5 million research papers constituting 27.3 million authorships from across the globe. By looking at the U.S. Social Security database and international records, they were able to sort each name by gender, country, discipline and U.S. state. And the results are pretty telling.
On the whole, females are underrepresented at a rate of 30 percent to 70 percent, and have half the incidence of first authorship than men. Also, their papers are cited at a much lower rate, which is a big problem because citations are a major indicator of the strength of one’s work and plays a part in hiring, advancement and tenure. Finally, women tended to lack a presence in international collaborations – yet another biggie when it comes time to review one’s work.
It comes as no shock and surprise that the most patriarchal societies show the worst gap – Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran – although the United States isn’t as good as it should be. Leading the way for gender equality in countries with high scientific output include places like Italy, Spain and France, but they weren’t even the highest.
Interestingly, countries and states that had a much lower scientific output in general typically also had a more equitable balance between the genders. Places with the greatest parity include Vermont, Rhode Island, Maine, Macedonia, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.
If I had to guess, I’d say that this was also a big indicator of the continuing gap. The cream of the crop, I would imagine, would tend to flock to the major players pumping out the most papers and garnering the highest prestige – none of which are in Vermont. And if men have the advantage that the statistics indicate, I’d expect them to lean toward those prestigious institutions.
So now comes the point where I speculate as to the why.
In my humble opinion, we’re still seeing the results of a different society from 40 years ago. There were undoubtedly less opportunities and a greater social burden on women in the sciences back then than today. The result is a lot more men in positions of power – deans, chairs, heads of laboratories, research provosts, etc. – which means they get published and cited more. It also means they are more likely to still have their ego in the past and have gender biases of their own.
“Seniority, authorship position, collaboration and citation are highly interlinked variables, and the senior ranks of science bear the imprint of previous generations’ barriers to the progression of women,” said Cassidy Sugimoto, assistant professor of information science at Indiana University.
If I were a betting man, I would guess that as that generation retires, and as the women growing up under the women in science initiatives that have been in place for the past decade, those attitudes will begin to shift, as will the gender discrepancy. I would bet that our efforts at fixing this blatant problem will begin to show some real traction in the next 40 years.
Then again, maybe I’m just naïve.
The study, “Global gender disparities in science,” was published in Nature by Sugimoto, along with Blaise Cronin, the Rudy Professor of Information Science at Indiana, University of Montreal assistant professor Vincent Larivière, University of Quebec at Montreal professor Yves Gingras, and Indiana doctoral candidate Chaoqun Ni.