Sexist Science: Data Show That Female Researchers Get Left Out

Natalie Sabin

September 01, 2022

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 were also working on DNA, James Watson and Francis Crick, obtained Franklin's data without her 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 her contribution — or even mentioned.

Franklin's exclusion may sound like obnoxious sexism from a bygone era. Certainly, it can't still be happening today.

Bad news: It is still happening today.

A new study published in Nature shows that from 2000 to 2019, women were credited for their work far less often than male peers.

"Female scientists, when compared to male counterparts, are 13% more likely to be left out of authorship on publications and 59% more likely to be left off of patents," says Enrico Berkes, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Ohio State University and a co-author on the new research.

Astonishingly, women were less likely to get credit in every single scientific field, including health, in which they are 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 the authorship credit in published research.

The findings raised a challenge. "If you only see the names of the women who are published relative to men, all you see is the outcome. You don't see people who are missing," Lane says. "We were interested in finding out whether there were other missing Rosalinds out there."

To do that, Lane and her team turned to data from the University of Michigan's Institute of Research for Innovation and Science. They analyzed administrative records on more than 128,000 researchers from more than 9700 teams, focusing on articles and patents published between 2013 and 2016. The fields of study encompassed all sciences — including health, physical science, life sciences, applied sciences, and engineering.

They then analyzed the pool by field of science, position level, and amount of time spent on the project.

The result?

"Regardless of how we cut the data, junior and senior male researchers were named at a much higher rate compared to women counterparts," says Lane.

Lane and her team didn't stop there. They also surveyed over 2400 scientists, both male and female. Their responses indicated that while both men and women were often not listened to within their research teams, women were much more likely than men to say their work was ignored and that their careers were negatively affected.

Systemic Failure: Why Women Get Left Out

Why is it that women are being omitted or overlooked so often? Is it that today's male researchers are as chauvinistic as those in the era of Watson and Crick? (Watson infamously wrote, "Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.") How is it that 70 years later, women are still being left off research articles and patents?

Berkes says a lot of the problem may be rooted in the attribution system used by most research teams.

According to the survey responses from women scientists, "the primary investigator (PI) on a study decides who gets to be identified on the paper," Berkes says. "Most PI's will list other senior researchers, but it turns out many senior researchers are men. This perpetuates the issue of more men being recognized compared to women."

And why is it that senior researchers are more often male than female? There are many contributing factors, but Berkes notes that women they spoke with reported feeling that their work was being overlooked and that they were not listened to.

"If people's voices are not heard, they tend to exit," Lane adds. "And that may be a factor contributing to the lack of diversity at the upper level."

Reducing Institutional Sexism in Science: A Starter Pack

Lane and Berkes are not out to villainize modern male researchers. They sought to quantify something that previously had only been available anecdotally. Now that data clearly show there is a problem, the question is, What can be done about it?

Lane says a good first step would be to examine how today's research teams operate. The field of science may benefit by adopting some of the management and team-building methods used in the business world.

"[Scientists] are not taught how to manage," Lane says. "We are academics and geeks. [We often think] dealing with humans is not as important. But managing smart, intense, driven individuals on research teams is hard. Learning how to do that better is something we all should do."

Research teams can also be better at fostering discussions and the exchange of ideas. Berkes says, "Having a safe environment where everyone feels as if they can speak up and feel heard would be an effective way to help solve this problem."

Lane and Berkes say their work is just the beginning. They believe other discoveries are yet to be made in understanding the gaps for other underrepresented groups in science, such as minorities, first-generation students, and nonnative English speakers.

"It is important to retain women and minority scientists so that research represents society as a whole," says Berkes. Underrepresentation of women and minorities may mean that health and medical issues that matter to these groups (such as maternal and perinatal health research) may not get the attention or funding they deserve, as a recent study in JAMA Network Open showed. "We can learn much 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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