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The gender gap in science: When will women be equally represented?

The gender gap is very striking in the STEMM workforce



IMAGE: The gender gap is very striking in the STEMM workforce. view more 

Credit: Jarmoluk on Pixabay

New research reveals that without further interventions, the gender gap for women working in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) workforce is very likely to persist for generations, particularly in surgery, computer science, physics and maths.

In a study publishing April 19 in the open access journal PLOS Biology, University of Melbourne researchers Dr Luke Holman, Associate Professor Devi Stuart-Fox and Dr Cindy Hauser analysed the numbers of men and women authors listed on more than 10 million academic papers, allowing them to calculate the gender gap among researchers, as well as its rate of change for most disciplines of science and medicine.

Dr Holman used computational methods to gather data from the citation databases PubMed and arXiv, and then estimated the gender of 36 million authors based on their names. The 15-year dataset covers more than 6000 academic journals, spans almost all STEMM disciplines, and includes authors from over 100 countries.

Results of the study showed that:

  • 87 of the 115 disciplines examined had significantly fewer than 45% women authors, 5 had significantly more than 55%, and the remaining 23 were within 5% of gender parity.
  • Topics such as physics, computer science, mathematics, surgery and chemistry had the fewest women, while health-related disciplines like nursing, midwifery, and palliative care had the most.
  • In a striking example, physics presently has around 13% women in senior positions, and this gap is predicted to take 258 years to close
  • Junior researchers were more likely to be women and senior researchers more likely to be men, relative to the overall gender ratio of the discipline in question.
  • Prestigious journals have fewer women authors than do standard journals.
  • A small minority of journals bucked the overall trend and had fewer women first authors than expected; these journals were predominantly well-known, prestigious titles such as Nature, Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, and BMJ.

Dr Hauser said that highly male-biased disciplines tended to show especially slow improvement in the gender ratio with time. "Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity, though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it," she said.

Associate Professor Fox noted that they chose to focus on academic publications as they are currently the primary means of disseminating scientific knowledge and the principal measure of research productivity, thereby influencing career prospects and visibility.

Several practical measures that could help to close the gender gap have already been identified and are awaiting implementation. These measures could include reforming academic publishing and peer review, ensuring women have equal access to informal professional networks, affording greater recognition of the extra demands outside the workplace that traditionally fall on women when assessing researchers' achievements, ensuring women receive equal resources at work, better access to parental leave and career break provisions, striving for a representative gender ratio of invited speakers at conferences, and affirmative action during hiring.


Adapted by PLOS Biology from release provided by the University of Melbourne.

In your coverage please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Biology:

Citation: Holman L, Stuart-Fox D, Hauser CE (2018) The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004956.

Image Caption: The gender gap is very striking in the STEMM workforce

Image Credit: Jarmoluk on Pixabay

Funding: School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne (grant number). Start-up funds provided to Luke Holman. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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