Data shows female researchers are being left behind
In 1953, scientist Rosalind Franklin made a pivotal contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA when she captured the double helix in X-ray photographs.
Two male peers who also worked on DNA, James Watson and Francis Crick, obtained Franklin’s data without his permission. They then used it to produce a model of DNA and its double helix structure. Watson and Crick went on to win a Nobel Prize. Franklin was not credited for his contribution — or even mentioned.
Franklin’s exclusion may sound like heinous sexism of a bygone era. Certainly, this can no longer happen today.
Bad news: it still happens today.
A new study published in Nature shows that from 2000 to 2019, women were credited for their work much less often than their male counterparts.
“Female scientists, compared to their male counterparts, are 13% more likely to be excluded from authorship of publications and 59% more likely to be excluded from patents,” says Enrico Berkes, PhD, postdoctoral researcher at the Ohio State University. and co-author of the new research.
Surprisingly, women were less likely to earn credits in all science fields, including health, in which they are in the majority.
Finding the Missing Women in Science
Berkes was part of a team led by Julia Lane, PhD, a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. She and her team found that women, who make up nearly half of the scientific workforce (48%), account for only 35% of author credit in published research.
The results raised a challenge. “If you only see the names of the women that are released versus the men, all you see is the result. You don’t see the missing people,” Lane said. “We wanted to know if there were any other missing Rosalinds out there.”
To do this, Lane and his team turned to data from the University of Michigan’s Research Institute for Innovation and Science. They analyzed the administrative records of more than 128,000 researchers from more than 9,700 teams, focusing on papers and patents published between 2013 and 2016. Fields of study spanned all sciences, including health, physical sciences, life sciences, applied sciences and engineering.
They then analyzed the pool by scientific field, job level and time spent on the project.
“Regardless of how we reduced the data, junior and senior male researchers were nominated at a much higher rate than their female counterparts,” Lane says.
Lane and his team didn’t stop there. They also interviewed more than 2400 scientists, men and women. Their responses indicated that while men and women were often not listened to on their research teams, women were much more likely than men to say their work was ignored and their careers were negatively affected.
Systemic failure: why women are being left behind
Why are women so often omitted or overlooked? Are today’s male researchers as chauvinistic as those of the Watson and Crick era? (Watson sadly wrote, “Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.”) How is it that 70 years later, women are still excluded from research papers and patents?
Berkes says much of the problem may be rooted in the attribution system used by most research teams.
According to survey responses from women scientists, “the principal investigator (PI) of a study decides who should be identified on the paper,” Berkes said. “Most Principal Investigators will list other Senior Investigators, but it turns out that many Senior Investigators are male. This perpetuates the problem of recognizing more males than females.”
And why are senior researchers more often men than women? There are many contributing factors, but Berkes notes that the women they spoke with said they felt their work was neglected and they weren’t listened to.
“If people’s voices aren’t heard, they tend to walk out,” adds Lane. “And that may be a contributing factor to the lack of diversity at the top level.”
Reducing Institutional Sexism in Science: A Starter Kit
Lane and Berkes do not seek to vilify modern male researchers. They sought to quantify something that had previously only been available anecdotally. Now that the data clearly shows that there is a problem, the question is: what can be done about it?
Lane says a good first step would be to look at how today’s research teams operate. The scientific field can benefit from adopting some of the management and team building methods used in the business world.
“[Scientists] don’t learn to manage,” says Lane. “We are academics and geeks. [We often think] dealing with humans is not as important. But managing smart, intense and driven individuals in research teams is difficult. Learning to do this better is something we should all be doing.”
Research teams can also better facilitate discussions and the exchange of ideas. Berkes says, “Having a safe environment where everyone feels like they can speak up and feel heard would be an effective way to help address this issue.”
Lane and Berkes say their work is just the beginning. They believe more discoveries are needed to understand the shortcomings of other underrepresented groups in science, such as minorities, first-generation students and non-native English speakers.
“It’s important to retain women and minority scientists so that the research represents society as a whole,” Berkes says. According to a recent study conducted in Open JAMA Network show. “We can learn a lot from each other, but we can’t learn if we don’t listen to each other.”
Nature. Published online June 22, 2022. Full text
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