Gender Gap in Senior Research Authorships 'Large and Stable'

Nancy A. Melville

March 08, 2018

Rates of women appearing as the first author on published research show steady increases and even exceed the rates in men — albeit much slower in cardiovascular research than other fields, new research shows, but those increases have not translated to higher rates of women named in the more prestigious roles as senior authors across all specialties.  

Importantly, the study published as a research letter in Circulation, also showed that the increases in the number of women as first authors are driven primarily by authorships in lower-impact journals.

In journals considered to have the highest impact, women continue to have significantly lower rates of first authorship then men. The authors of the new analysis conclude that the "senior author gender gap has remained large and stable." 

"Taken together, women appear successful as first authors, but this accomplishment seems to not commensurately translate into last authorships," study coauthor Marc J. Lerchenmueller, PhD, MPH, from the Yale University School of Management, New Haven, Connecticut, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

"In other words, women's careers appear to stall at a point where scientists are expected to transition from junior to senior scientist."

"Part of this challenge in transition may stem from women's lower likelihood of first authorships in high-impact journals, both in cardiology and the life sciences more broadly," he said.

The study involved the review of authorships in 12,018 National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01-supported cardiovascular research articles published in 107 cardiology journals between 1985 and 2015.

For comparison with other medical specialties, the review also included 600,747 medical research articles across specialties in 3849 journals.

The results showed that women in fact have been named as first authors 5% (relative risk [RR], 1.05) more frequently than men in cardiovascular research articles from 2005 to 2015. Women in life sciences overall were as much as 20% (RR, 1.20) more likely to earn first author status than men in the same period.

In contrast, women have been named as the last author approximately 50% less frequently than men across all life sciences, including cardiology (RR, 0.41 - 0.53).

In further stratifying the results according to the prominence of the journal, the authors found that the higher rates of women as first authors in cardiovascular research were largely the result of authorships in lower-impact journals.

In journals considered to have the highest impact, women had significantly lower rates of first authorship than men (RR, 0.87).

The rates of being last author did not appear correlated with the degree of the journal's impact.

In an extended analysis that split these results by supporting NIH institute to gauge differences across areas of research beyond cardiovascular studies, the authors found significant underrepresentation of women as last authors across all NIH institutes analyzed, but the RRs did vary by research area.

Overall, findings reflect a continuing under-representation of women in academic medicine, particularly in cardiology, and particularly in higher roles, the authors said.

"Among cardiologists with faculty appointments, for example, only »17% are women, and advancement into senior roles seems particularly challenging.

"Differences in the credit that women receive relative to men as prestigious first and last authors for research done by a group may contribute to this gender gap," they write, and these findings suggest that it is particularly the credit as last author that may play a part.

A Discouraging Picture

The study's longitudinal nature provides unique and valuable insights into the key question of whether first authorships translate to more senior authorships over the course of time, Mary Norine Walsh, MD, president of the American College of Cardiology (ACC), told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology.

"The paper is important because it spans so many years," she said. "One would think there would be a parallel — that with the earlier higher first authorships, by 2015 there would be an uptick in last authorship."

The findings paint a discouraging picture of how women are progressing as senior investigators, she said.

"This is another demonstration of the sort of ceiling that women encounter when rising in the academic ranks," Walsh said.

"It's really disappointing that we don't see a parallel increase in last authorship, which is the prestigious position in a paper — signaling that it's the author's lab or research group that's producing the paper."

The findings may reflect broader trends shown in other research of women in academic careers failing to achieve senior tenured positions as frequently or as rapidly as men, Walsh noted.

Ongoing efforts by the ACC striving to tackle gender gaps in academic research and other areas include the ACC's Women in Cardiology Member Section and Leadership Council and the Diversity Task Force, which includes goals to increase the number of women entering cardiology and encouraging their advancement.

Lerchenmueller added that research efforts such as the current paper, tracking progress, will also be key in addressing the problem.

"As Dr Walsh notes, analyses like this one also provide an opportunity for the medical community to track progress on this matter in an evidence-based spirit in the years to come," he said.

The authors and Walsh had no disclosures to report.

Circulation. Published February 20, 2018. Abstract

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