“First study of its kind finds diet can benefit hundreds of millions,” “researchers find information about cancer drugs can be lacking,” “ultra massive black hole discovered by UK astronomers.” Headlines like these, taken from a major British newspaper at the time of writing, are commonplace and familiar. We’ve probably all become so accustomed to reading them that we rarely stop to find out more about the individual study that is being reported on.
Yet, we would be wise to do so as then we might find out an uncomfortable truth: research output suffers from gender differences (and we should all be eating more legumes, apparently). One recent study about this phenomenon led by Professor Julia Lane, an economist at New York University who studies women’s representation in research, puts it more frankly, “women are credited less in science than men.” Credit is understood here simply as being named as an author of a published article. In the case of the three news stories cited above, nearly three quarters of the authors of the quoted articles appear to be cismen. While this inequality in authorship is not quite representative of the state of scientific publishing as a whole, it is not far off; the study led by Professor Lane finds that women account for only 34% of the authors on a team – this is despite the fact that they make up just under half of the workforce.
Perhaps surprisingly, gender differences in observed scientific output are well known and documented. For a long time, however, the causes of these differences were not fully unpacked or even investigated. More recently, studies have used individual data to suggest that women researchers publish less because they undertake more unpaid care labour, have different positions in the laboratory, or receive different forms of supervision. Yet, while all of these factors may be true (and each can clearly be interrogated with a gendered lens), the data is increasingly telling us what many suspected all along: women are systematically less likely to be named as authors.
A canonical example that illustrates this is that of the British scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958). Famous for her work producing images that revealed the helical structure of DNA molecules, which allowed James Watson and Francis Crick to construct the first DNA model, Franklin’s pivotal contribution initially went unrecognised. It was only after her untimely death from ovarian cancer that the scientific community realised that she was denied authorship on the original Crick and Watson Nobel Prize-winning paper. Luckily, she was celebrated with a commemorative 50p coin in 2020 so justice won out. More seriously, Franklin’s story is just one of many and illustrates how women’s scientific contributions have been missed, undervalued, and excluded from the historical record.
Thankfully, the scientific landscape today is slowly changing, promoting gender equity in authorship are now seen as important objectives. One recent study found, for instance, that women scholars are now more likely than their men counterparts to be elected to prestigious American scientific societies. However, as Professor Lane has argued, this could primarily be a result of survivorship bias – women who make it to the top have faced more hurdles and so are likely to be more accomplished than men candidates. Clearly, much more still needs to be done.
Alongside closing the gender gap, other intersecting dimensions of identity and richer measures of gender (for example, non-binary and fluid) need to also be examined to understand the experience of minoritised and marginalised groups. According to a 2019 survey of British scientists, for example, ‘invisible’ is how many sexual and gender diverse scientists describe their status at their institution. Similarly, the racialisation of academia also means that special measures need to be taken to help alleviate the experiences of scientists and engineers of colour.
As history shows us, progress is possible but never inevitable.