The Gender/Resource Gap

Why do women publish less in science, on average, than do men? A new study suggests that it may have to do with what universities provide in financial support.

December 13, 2012

Even as women have narrowed or closed gaps in earning Ph.D.s in many science disciplines, their numbers have remained relatively small at the senior faculty ranks. A range of theories have been offered to explain these lingering gaps. Some see continued sexism as the culprit. Others say that women may be opting out of the demands of winning tenure in the sciences -- and still others say that women publish less than do men.

A study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE confirms that women in a series of scientific disciplines publish less, on average, than do men. But the study went further, and looked for trends within the disciplines -- and the authors argue that their findings suggest that women may be publishing less than men because departments are not providing them with the same resources.

The authors examined the faculty rosters at top American research universities in a range of science disciplines, and found that the publishing gap varied from discipline to discipline. Then the authors looked at the extent to which researchers in some disciplines require more support from their departments in terms of equipment, lab space, graduate student assistants and other forms of assistance that cost money. Science fields are not all alike in this respect -- and scientists in some disciplines can advance their research with minimal levels of support, while those in other fields need quite a bit of help.

What the analysis found was that women published the least, relative to men, in the fields in which researchers need the most support from their departments. Discipline by discipline, greater levels of necessary support led to a greater gender gap in publishing. Molecular biology required the most support, and had the greatest gap, while industrial engineering was on the other end. The study also cites comparisons that have been done at various campuses finding that female scientists receive smaller startup packages than do their male counterparts.

Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University and one of the study's authors, said he thought the findings showed ways that women in science continue to be at a disadvantage. "As you need more resources, you see females publishing at lower rates. That's very suggestive of causality," he said.

Amaral noted a study released in September that found that scientists (male and female alike) evaluated male candidates for jobs more favorably than female candidates -- even when presented with identical materials about the candidates. Based on those findings, Amaral said, it is likely that those starting their academic careers are being judged by many people at least in part on gender, even if those doing the judging don't intend to be biased. "Even if you try to be enlightened, there is the weight of our culture to giving more resources to men."

The encouraging news out of this study, Amaral said, is that the the findings point to an issue -- equity in support -- that colleges and universities can monitor. "It's very easy for universities to do this kind of analysis, and to see what packages people are getting and what kinds of support and space," he said.

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