Darker shades of blue show countries where the gender gap is largest. Photo: Indiana University
Men account for roughly 70 percent of all authors of peer-reviewed scientific research, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Montreal and Indiana University.
Given the well-documented systematic inequalities of gender in science, that disparity probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but it’s still a staggering, global problem that persists through most disciplines and most countries worldwide. According to the study, published in Nature, men are also more likely to collaborate with international peers than women are, and papers by male authors are more often cited, a measure of a study’s impact.
The study looked at more than 5.4 million peer-reviewed articles published between 2008 and 2012. From those papers, they were able to determine the genders of 17.6 million authors.
“There have been studies for years showing a bias against women,” Vincent Lariviere, lead author of the study, said. “But we see that it’s essentially happening in each and every country and in each and every discipline.”
The disparity is most notable in studies out of the Middle East and Western Africa, but persists in the United States, where women write less than half as many papers as men. The only countries where women wrote more papers than men between 2008 and 2012 were Macedonia, Sri Lanka, Latvia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Turkmenistan. Lariviere says countries in South America and Scandinavia fare better than much of the world, but a small gap still exists. The only disciplines in which women publish more often than men are in “care” industries such as nursing, education, and social work.
“I think it’s a problem with academia, but it goes beyond that. If you look at the CEOs of companies and other high-end economic positions, political positions, you’ll see that they’re men. We’re not trying to provide a definite explanation to why this is happening, but it’s quite obvious,” he said. “But if you look at countries that do better, like Brazil and Argentina, they have or have had female presidents. It relates to the place of women in these societies in general.”
Lariviere says former Soviet Union states fared better because, communism has “always put women on par with the men.” That logic hasn’t followed to Russia itself, which has one of the worst female-to-male paper-writing ratios in the world.
With such a huge pool of data points, it’s easy to see this is a systematic problem. But it’s hard, Lariviere says, to pinpoint whether there is an inherent gender bias in the process of peer review, or if it’s a problem with the journals themselves, academia, funding processes, or education systems. It’s likely a little bit of all of those things, he says. Even the papers women do publish are generally seen as less “impactful” and have less international reach, another problem altogether.
“In each and every country, they are less cited than men. Women publish less and when they publish they don’t have the same impact,” he said. “Their papers are also much more ‘local,’ which has an impact on how a paper is seen. You need a good network of international collaborators now to be taken seriously. With local support only, it’s tougher for your papers to get published.”