Gender equality in the sciences is improving, but more work is needed

Female representation in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has improved somewhat, but a new study looked at the authors of millions of articles and found there is still more work to be done in promoting women in academia.

“Of the gender-biased disciplines, almost all are moving towards parity, though some are predicted to take decades or even centuries to reach it,” Dr. Cindy Hauser, senior research fellow in mathematics at the University of Melbourne and one of the authors on the study, said in a statement.

Women were significantly underrepresented as senior authors on studies, according to the study published Thursday in the journal PLOS Biology.

The fields with the lowest amount of female representation were: Physics, computer science, mathematics, surgery and chemistry.

The study, conducted at the University of Melbourne, found 87 out of the 115 identified STEM disciplines had fewer than 45 percent of authors who were female.

Researchers used a computer algorithm to search through almost 11 million academic publications listed on 2 major science databases, PubMed and arXiv, which track more than 6,000 STEM journals. They identified 50 million authors — and the computer assigned a gender to almost 37 million.

From that data, they produced a series of gender ratios: The percentage of women who were lead authors of research or senior authors of research, which publications published research and how often women were invited to write editorials, conduct reviews or provide commentary.

The team projected how long it would take to reach gender parity by field.

Physics, for instance, showed only 13 percent of senior positions held by women — a gap that they forecasted to take 258 years to close.

The team chose to focus on academic publications, since they are currently the primary means of disseminating scientific knowledge and the principal measure of research productivity, thereby influencing the career prospects and visibility of women in STEM, said Dr. Devi Stuart-Fox, an author on the study and evolutionary biologist at the University of Melbourne.

The gender gap was noted to be even wider at more prestigious journals, such as Nature, Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine and the British Medical Journal. The calculations showed the higher the journal’s stature and impact, the less women were represented.

The authors think this could be for several reasons: Prestigious journals receive numerous submissions, so editors reject many publications without blind peer review, disadvantaging women as names are visible on the first review.

Women may be less likely to be mentored or encouraged to submit their work to more prestigious publications. Prestigious journals also publish more invited submissions, which in this dataset showed men were 1.7 to 2.1 times more likely to be invited to submit work for a publication.

The authors hope their research promotes more reforms in academic STEM to move closer towards gender parity. To help in the process, the researchers have also made their data and findings free and publically available to access online — and suggested the data could help find ways to change the selection process.

David J. Kim, MD is a final year Emergency Medicine resident at the University of California, Los Angeles, working with the ABC News Medical Unit in New York.