Fewer women are listed as authors of scientific papers, and where they are, often they are well down on the list, say researchers. (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

Gender gap in STEMM will persist without intervention: study


More women are studying and working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM) but they are not closing the gender gap when it comes to publishing, according to a new study.  Researchers analysed 10 million academic papers from around the world published since 2002.


Women ‘maybe not progressing to senior levels’

“Although many young women are entering fields of STEMM…they are not showing up as authors on scientific publications. And when they do, they don’t show up in the most prominent or senior authorship positions indicating that maybe they’re not progressing through to the senior levels of the career as much as males do,” says Maureen MacDonald, dean of science at McMaster University.

This gender gap in publishing was found to be particularly large in Japan, Germany and Switzerland.  The countries with the smallest gender gaps spanned Europe, South America and Africa. The researchers found that countries in which children of both sexes attend school longer have more women authors, while countries with higher per capita income have fewer women authors.

The biggest gender gaps occur in surgery, computer science, physics and math. (Shutterstock)

Canada rates in the middle

Canada rated somewhere in the middle with 40 per cent of authors being female and 60 per cent male. MacDonald says that while this may not appear to be so bad, closer scrutiny reveals the gap to be much bigger in the fields of surgery, computer science, physics and math.

MacDonald says the study reveals that some of the barriers women face in other careers are also still present in STEMM. “Those might be present in the way that we publish papers and the way that peers review those publications. But it also might be such subtle things as the opportunities for informal mentorship that allows for career progression.”

Assumptions and stereotypes cited

Other factors affecting women may be the extra duties they take on outside the workplace and interrupting their careers temporarily for child or parental care. The study quotes the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine as saying the “deficit of women in STEMM is not because too few women enter the field or because women are less committed to their STEMM careers, but rather because ‘assumptions and stereotypes about gender operate in personal interactions, evaluative processes and departmental cultures that systematically impede women’s career advancement in academic medicine, science and engineering.’”

Small, practical measures such as ending meetings at 4:30 can remove obstacles to women’s advancement, says dean.

Many ways to overcome obstacles

There are initiatives that can help women overcome these barriers. MacDonald points to the Athena SWAN Charter in the U.K. which was established in 2005 with a stated goal of advancing the careers of women STEMM employment in higher education and research. Something as simple as ending meetings at 4:30pm can have the effect of not penalizing women who have to leave for child care responsibilities and can make them more comfortable talking about other difficulties they face.

At her own university, MacDonald has taken some practical steps such as asking organizers of scientific events to state how they are addressing gender equity, for example, in choosing their speakers. McMaster University used to require those who wished to take on leadership positions to have someone nominate them. Since women are sometimes less comfortable with that, they have eliminated the requirement.

Everyone would benefit, says dean

There are many reasons why closing the gender gap is important. MacDonald says if women are being encouraged to study in STEMM fields they should be given the opportunities to move up the career ladder. She notes that Canadian taxpayers have invested in their education and deserve a fair return and that “we know that teams in all workplaces generate more positive outcomes and science is no exception to that.”

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