Palpable Gender Differences Among Scientific Publications

Nishi Jain ’21

The push for women in STEM has gained new ground in the 21st century. With programs starting as early as elementary and middle school that encourage young girls to look beyond the pages of their science textbooks to a career in biology, computer science, chemistry, physics, and engineering, the world is seeing more female scientists than ever before. As evinced by the many programs that emphasize the involvement of women in STEM, much effort has gone into investigating entry into such professions in order to optimize conditions for more women to enter science-heavy careers. However, while entry has been emphasized and well-studied, there has been little research into the effect of women on the workplace, or the workplace on women.

Medicine and the life sciences specifically have an alarmingly low female presence. This is, in part, due to women’s relative declines in each career step (from undergraduate to graduate, from graduate to fellowship, and from fellowship to either professorship or status as an attending physician). Women also have overall lower salaries, fewer citations, and fewer research grants compared to their male counterparts1. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal has found that part of this lack of representation can be attributed to the way that female first-author publications phrase research findings relative to male first-author publications.

Collectively referred to as “self-presentation in scientific research,” the study investigated the relationships between scientific titles and abstracts that were published in the 15-year window between 2002 and 2017. Highly connotative words and phrases such as “unique,” “novel,” and “unprecedented” were noted to differ between female first-author and male-first author publications, and results showed that women were significantly less likely to use such positive terms in the self-presentation of their research. In particular, this was evinced by limited usage in their abstracts and titles. Such gender differences were much more pronounced in high-impact journals with a higher likelihood for future citation and reference1.

If the effect of the gender gap in self-presentation was limited to publications alone, there is hope yet for its containment. However, such a trend is only emblematic of a larger and more pervasive pattern that manifests itself more frequently within the scientific (and corporate) workplace. Men tend to engage in more flagrant self-promotion as compared to women1. This then becomes part of the reason that the scientific community sees decreasing proportions of women as career steps progress further and further. And while we are seeing a narrowing of the gender gap during the earlier stage of careers (i.e. secondary school, undergraduate, and even graduate) in developed countries, the trend highlighted by the British Medical Journal is indicative of a fundamental, systemic problem that plagues the confidence of women in the scientific fields.  While this larger problem will take many more generations to solve, there are solutions that can be implemented now to address the disparate styles of self-presentation in publications. But it is difficult to immediately expect change within the behaviors of scientists writing the publications when considering their predisposed habits of self-presentation, so the editing process itself can account and normalize for these differences. Although such a procedural change is plausible, it does not take away from the necessity of the scientific community combatting these trends head-on through mentorship, guidance, and an eye for positive change. As it stands, these inherent gender differences in behavior are deeply problematic and warrant further educational, professional, and societal attention to reduce professional barriers for future generations of female scientists.

 

Reference:

[1] Lerchenmueller, Marc J. et al. “F1000Prime Recommendation of Gender Differences

in How Scientists Present the Importance of Their Research: Observational

Study.” F1000 – Post-Publication Peer Review of the Biomedical Literature, 2019,

doi:10.3410/f.737101363.793569080.

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