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New study says policies to promote work of women academics aren’t wholly successful

Researchers compare research output of women academics with men in many disciplines and countries.

BY MARIE LAMBERT-CHAN | DEC 11 2013

A new study published in the journal Nature has found that in the majority of disciplines, women produce fewer scientific articles than do their male counterparts. This is the case in most countries, with the exception of Lithuania, Ukraine, Macedonia and Turkmenistan. Moreover, fewer female academics are involved in international research projects, and their articles are cited less often, even when they are the lead author.

“These findings show that there is systemic gender bias in the scientific world,” says Vincent Larivière, a professor at Université de Montréal’s School of Library and Information Sciences and lead author of the study. His report is published in this week’s issue of Nature.

To arrive at these conclusions, the names of 27 million authors of 5.4 million articles published between 2008 and 2012 were analyzed. “Starting in 2008, the Web of Science database, which has indexed all scientific articles published since 1900, started recording the authors’ first names rather than just their initials. This has allowed us to determine the sex of most of these researchers and thus establish the position of women in each discipline, by country,” said Dr. Larivière. His research was supported by researchers at Université du Québec à Montréal’s Science and Technology Observatory and at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Larivière and his team found that, everywhere in the world, there are fewer women than men scientists, except in a handful of countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. “This may be attributable to their past communist regime, a system in which men and women were seen more or less as equals,” he noted.

Overall, gender equality was apparent in fewer than 10 percent of countries. In North America, a number of provinces and states have achieved near-parity between the sexes, including Quebec, Oregon and Washington. A similar trend is taking place in Brazil, Argentina and France, whereas Saudi Arabia, Iran and North African countries continue to be the worst places to try to break through as a woman academic.

By discipline, women researchers appear to have the upper hand in health-related fields, including nursing, geriatrics, nutrition, social work, education, the study of eating disorders and speech therapy. Men dominate in all other disciplines, from mathematics and engineering to philosophy and theatre. And although women have created a more extensive cooperative network at the national level than have their male counterparts, the same cannot be said with respect to the international stage.

According to Dr. Larivière, the most disappointing results are related to the impact of women on the world of science. “Regardless of whether they are lead author, last author or sole author, or whether they are part of a national or international initiative, women are consistently cited less often than men, and this is true in almost every country,” he said.

Dr. Larivière and his colleagues wanted to report on the status of women researchers around the world without delving into the causes of these disparities. “It’s all very complex and would require an in-depth qualitative analysis,” he said. “For the time being, we can simply say that the policies aimed at promoting the advancement of women in science have not produced the desired results. A real transformation will only take place once we’ve taken into account the various social, economic and political forces at play in the countries where these researchers work.”

Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science,” by Vincent Larivière, Chaoqun Ni, Yves Gingras, Blaise Cronin & Cassidy R. Sugimoto. Nature, 11 December 2013., vol. 504, issue 7479.

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  1. Nicholas Tracy / December 11, 2013 at 15:28

    The assessment made here is not strictly logical, as citation of the work of fellow scholars is determined by the relevance and quality of that work. Logically, work of lesser importance will be cited less frequently – and not necessarily because of gender bias. Not all scholars are equal. Some chose to be scholars because they want to qualify as academics, and some are academics because they want an opportunity to be scholars. Screening for such variables, if it can be done, needs to precede judgments about bias, or the lack thereof.

  2. Jim Clark / December 11, 2013 at 16:55

    The gratuitous conclusion that differences = “gender bias in the scientific world” is a sad commentary on the quality of scientific thinking that underlies this work. Can the authors think of no other explanation? What about seniority? And are the striking cultural differences in the treatment of women (e.g., in the Middle East) really problems with the “scientific world?”

  3. Dave Grimshire / December 12, 2013 at 07:55

    I can’t find the article in Nature that is mentioned. It doesn’t help that the volume and issue aren’t referred to. The editorial at Nature.com for Volume 504 Issue 7479 titled Gender Progress? seems to show an editorial focus in this magazine for gender.

    Perhaps reporting here could be improved to allow readers to follow-up on what could be interesting stories.

  4. Tara Siebarth, UA web editor / December 12, 2013 at 08:24

    Hello Mr. Grimshire,

    We now have a link to the Nature article at the bottom of our piece.

  5. Marianne LeBreton / December 12, 2013 at 15:20

    I’m saddened to see in the comments such denial that gender biases exist. Could there be other variables involved? Yes, and I agree that more detailed research should be done. However, it is erroneous in itself to imply that women produce work “of lesser importance” (and so are cited less often) or that they have less seniority (because that, in itself, underlies gender bias in the hiring and promotion of women academics).