The Price Women Pay for Co-Authorship

Study of economics faculty members finds that men get credit where women do not.

January 9, 2017
 

"This paper is intentionally solo authored."

Heather Sarsons, a doctoral student in economics at Harvard University, included that unusual footnote on a paper she presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. Most papers by solo authors don't feel the need to draw attention to that fact, but Sarsons's subject may explain the footnote. She studied the way men and women who are economics professors appear to be judged differently (with women held to a higher standard) on the basis of co-authored papers.

Sarsons argues that the subject is important because women are less likely than men to be tenured in economics departments, and dual authorship is a common practice for faculty members. Further, the convention in economics is for authors to be listed alphabetically, so there is no indication from the papers themselves whether the first or subsequent author or authors contributed more or less than others did.

To determine the impact of co-authorship, Sarsons tracked all of economics professors who came up for tenure between 1985 and 2014 at 30 top universities, all places that stress tenure candidates' research credentials. She considered various factors to control for paper and journal quality through such measures as citation indexes.

Her findings:

  • Men and women who are solo authors of most of their papers have similar rates of tenure, when factoring in measures of paper quality.
  • When men co-author papers, each such paper is associated with an increase of 8 percent in the odds of the man earning tenure. But when women co-author papers, each such paper is associated only with a 2 percent increase in the odds of earning tenure.

Sarsons argues in her paper that there is additional evidence that women and men are judged differently when they co-author papers. When women co-author papers with women, the impact of co-authored papers is similar to that for male faculty members. But when papers are co-authored with men, there is more of an impact, suggesting that review committees assume that papers written by a man and a woman reflect the work of the man more than the woman.

In an interview, Sarsons said she didn't "feel very qualified" to offer advice based on her findings, given that she's still working on her Ph.D.

She added that she did not want her work to discourage women from doing any work with fellow scholars. Co-authoring is "very common in economics," she said, and some field experiments would be difficult to do without a co-author.

Sarsons said she hopes her study will prompt those making promotion decisions to think about the way they are judging men and women. But if "women want to be extra cautious," they may want to co-author only with other women, she said.

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