Scientific contributions by women are often shortchanged, but to what extent and frequency does this critical problem persist?
Information scientist and AAAS Member Vincent Larivière, Ph.D., employs bibliometrics, the use of statistical methods to analyze publications, to put hard numbers on how women in science have long been trivialized and devalued. He has analyzed millions of research papers, finding big differences in article production and recognition for women scientists.
“It's crucial because it's only with that data that you can actually show how bad the issue is. There are many people who have told us, ‘Thank you for showing it with empirical data, because otherwise people think that this is only anecdotal evidence.’ Good data allows us to actually see how bad the authorship problem is,” says Larivière.
Larivière is a professor at the School of Library and Information Sciences of the University of Montreal, where his work examines science policy, scholarly publishing, and diversity and equity in science. He and his colleague, information scientist and fellow AAAS Member Cassidy Sugimoto, Ph.D., at the Georgia Institute of Technology, published the book, "Equity for Women in Science,” analyzing the gendered process of scientific article production in papers in the biological, physical, and social sciences.
Based on their research, the experiences of women scientists differ from their male counterparts, starting with their applications for grants, to the amounts awarded, through the citation of their research after it is published. A running theme: more work, less credit. Many women researchers do more work as principal investigators (PIs) at every stage of their careers.
“A woman PI will do as much lab work as a man who's 10 years younger. That number is quite striking,” notes Larivière.
Yet women scientists, even when they are listed as first authors on a paper, are cited by other scientists 10% less than male scientists. Larivière stresses that the lack of recognition of women, both as scientists and research subjects, can be far more perilous than simply not crediting them for their wide range of contributions.
“These disparities have consequences on what we know about the world. They have consequences on the type of science that we make,” says Larivière.
He says many clinical trials, for instance, are designed based on a male as a patient model. That choice can have unknown, even dangerous consequences when a new drug or treatment makes it to the public. In fact, Larivière says 80% of drugs recalled from the U.S. market were taken off because of the adverse effects they had on women.
“The best research that you can do, especially in medical science, but also on many levels of engineering, is research that can apply to everyone,” emphasizes Larivière.
Similar risks exist in designing safety equipment. Airbags are going to be different for a 6-foot-tall, 180-pound man, than for a 5-foot-2-inch-tall woman. If crash test dummies are only six-foot tall men, they won't work well for women.
In times of crisis, women and minorities are also often the first to feel the impact. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, women in STEM who had to take over family and childcare duties saw their research suffer the most.
“At the beginning of the first lockdown, from March to August of 2020, there was a drop of about 20 to 25% in the proportion of women first authors in many fields,” says Larivière.
Women faced another disadvantage depending on their field of study. A large share of research in biology and education, with large populations of women, were completely shut out because they couldn’t do any field work during lockdown.
“Men in economics, physics, math, computer science, they could work in front of a computer, so they could continue their research. So not only did women have a higher burden from a child and family point of view, their fields were much more likely to just be stalled during the pandemic. It is a double penalty.”
While quotas are sometimes criticized as a form of “reverse discrimination,” Larivière says they can be an effective, ideally temporary, solution.
“It's a measure that aims to really recreate an equilibrium. And once the equilibrium is there, then you don't need them anymore. Quotas force people to actually find excellent candidates at places they don't typically look at. It forces them to go beyond the easy.”
But he says, male dominance has been on some levels, thousands of years in the making. Undoing its effects will take time.
“Policies associated with gender equity remain imperfect,” says Larivière. “But globally, it's generally accepted that we need to do something, and that these inequalities are generating problems for science and for society in general.”