In Research Fields, Women Make Progress But There’s Still A Gap

04/03/2017 11:42 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2017
Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Awarded the 2017 Japan Prize this month for CRISPR-Cas9.
Courtesy: Japan Prize Foundation
Prof. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna, Awarded the 2017 Japan Prize this month for CRISPR-Cas9.

Since the dawn of the scientific process, research fields have been dominated by men. Historically, women were barred from entering science, initially by restrictive regulations, then by cultural pressures that reinforced their exclusion. The popular Academy-Award-nominated film “Hidden Figures” is based on such a story: three African-American women work to overcome cultural prejudices in order to contribute to the launch of Astronaut John Glenn.

I’d like to say “that was then,” and opportunities for women in research fields began to appear in the 70’s. Today, Canada has more women enrolled in post-secondary education than men; in the U.S., women and men are at parity in earning bachelor's degrees in STEM fields.

Good progress: and yet educational opportunities have not translated into equal representation in research positions or STEM employment. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, despite the equality in degree awards, many U.S. women fail to obtain STEM jobs upon graduation; others enroll to earn a master’s or doctorate in a STEM field, but fail to graduate.

We all miss out on their discoveries and leadership if women are not better represented in research, and it’s incumbent on all of us – women as well as men – to understand and use our voices to address the reasons why inequality occurs. In March, as we marked Women’s History Month, we saw policymakers, educators and researchers discussing ways to close this gap. Yet, when it comes to understating persistent gender disparity in research fields, much of the discussion is based on personal experience and speculation. Before we can close the gender gap – we need to address our knowledge gap.

A study we just published, “Gender in the Global Research Landscape”, measures research performance over a 20-year period (up to 2015) across 27 disciplines in research communities of 12 countries. While the study shows progress in the percentage of women researchers, that progress has been incremental and – at best – uneven.

Women comprised more than 40% of researchers in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, the EU, France, Portugal, the UK, and the US. In the remaining countries – Chile, Mexico and Japan – women made up fewer than 40%. In the previous iteration of this study (1996-2000), only in Portugal did the number of women surpass 40%. In all countries, the number of women researchers grew steadily since 2000.

That’s encouraging, but additional findings indicate areas where improvements are needed to approach gender equality. For example, the share of women researchers differs across fields: health and life sciences have the highest representation of women, while in physical sciences, fewer than 25% of researchers are women in several fields. The share of women inventors in patent applications increased between initial (10%) and current (14%) studies, yet women are underrepresented across countries studied. Additional findings show that:

When it comes to papers and articles, those who use research tend to be “gender blind.” Although women publish fewer research articles than men, their articles are cited or downloaded at similar rates.

Women’s scholarly output includes a slightly larger proportion of highly interdisciplinary research than men’s. Noted across all countries and regions, women take a slightly higher share of the top 10% of interdisciplinary scholarly output than men.

Women are generally less internationally mobile than men. In all countries studied, women are less likely than men to collaborate internationally on research papers. And, despite an increase in collaboration over time, there has been no change in the difference between men’s and women’s likelihood to collaborate internationally.

Women are less likely than men to collaborate across academic and corporate sectors on research articles; The proportion of scholarly output resulting from academic-corporate collaboration is marginally lower for women than for men among researchers across all countries.

Gender research on topics like feminism and gender stereotyping is growing in size and complexity, with new topics emerging over time. Gender research has also become less concentrated in the US (50% of papers in 1996-2000) and more equitably split between the US and the EU (more than a third each in 2011-2015).

Studies suggest many factors contribute to gender inequality in STEM. There’s persistent bias in hiring, authorship, recognition and promotion. Attitudes towards young women in mathematics and science - including from parents, peers and math and science teachers – have their impact, as do curriculum content and experiences in secondary school, and turn young women away from STEM, despite having equal interest as boys in early secondary school years.

In addition, women are more likely than men to have a non-linear career path, and are more likely to leave the academic track because of personal factors such as maternity leave. Women researchers have also been shown to specialize less than men, which may also be linked to lower productivity and promotion in their careers.

What’s needed to address these potential causes and the clear and measurable shortfalls in gender parity are new interventions and policies informed by evidence and information resources. Only with an informed approach can we hope to create a more equitable method that promises a true chance for better equality in the research world, and the much-needed increase in discoveries and innovations that would follow.