We need to deal with climate change, we must cater for a human population that is growing at an extraordinarily fast pace; these are huge problems and it does not make sense to limit the number of people that will be working to tackle them. If the scientific community fails to encourage underrepresented groups to join its quest, it will be shooting itself in the foot.
Professor Luís Amaral
The findings of a quantitative study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University
suggest that bias against female faculty members is ingrained within the scientific community. The results, which have been published in the journal PLoS ONE
, show that women working as independent academic researchers publish fewer papers than their male peers, although not for want of trying.
To find out more about this STEM-based gender bias, I spoke to Luís Amaral, co author of the study and professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
. I began by asking Professor Amaral whether he had been surprised to find that such prejudices exist within the scientific community.
"Sadly not," he replied. "A lot of previous research has been conducted within this field. Our study allowed us to quantify some of the things that we already suspected. If you are a woman working in science – and I think that many of our results would be valid for other underrepresented groups – the playing field just isn’t level. Essentially, you have many more difficulties with which to contend. Having to face these additional difficulties makes it much harder for you to succeed."
The team studied the publication records of more than 4,200 professors working within STEM-related fields, and found that female scientists who specialised in research-intensive disciplines were most at risk of falling behind their male peers. The researchers contend that this is because of the historic tendency for academic departments to invest more in male faculty members; a situation that is self-perpetuating. Because of the uneven playing field, women have fewer chances to publish research. In turn, this can serve to affirm the prejudices of academic heads who see female staff members as ‘unproductive’. Consequently, female scientists continue to go without the resources that they need in order to further their research.
"For a long time, many people have held onto the notion that female researchers are less productive than their male counterparts," Professor Amaral explained. "Moreover, previous studies have looked at large groups without accounting for trends that could mask outcomes. For example, publication rates have increased over the last 40 years. Scientists nowadays publish more papers than has traditionally been the case. In addition, senior scientists are more prolific than their junior colleagues. If you have been in this business for 20 years, you are probably publishing more papers than somebody who has just started out. When you are comparing publication rates of males and females, therefore, you have to take these factors into consideration. There are fewer females in academia than there are males, and the females who are in academia tend to have started their careers more recently.
"Another factor for which previous studies have failed to account is the possibility of differences based upon the discipline in question," Amaral continued. "In the past, researchers have tended to group everybody together, regardless of whether they work in biology, material science, mathematics, etc. We adopted a novel approach by analysing data from different academic fields separately. Our findings revealed that gender bias has to be understood in terms of a particular discipline’s characteristics. We discovered that whilst claims that women were publishing less were accurate, the fields in which they were publishing less were resource intensive. Historically, women have been granted fewer resources during the early stages of their careers. If you have less money, a smaller lab and access to fewer students, you are not going to be able to publish as much as somebody with better resources. This results in a cumulative effect whereby those who are allocated the greatest resources when they begin, can publish more throughout their careers. Success breeds success; the rich get richer. Something positive that can be taken from our study is the fact that this situation can be rectified fairly easily. If we monitor the resources that are allocated to different groups within academic institutions, we can ensure that the playing field is as level as possible."
The Northwestern team seems to have identified a clear problem with a clear solution. Bias exists, but more effective monitoring could help to remove it. I went on to ask Professor Amaral what might happen if such bias is allowed to continue unchecked.
"Fields such as science, engineering, technology and mathematics are extremely important; especially when you consider the challenges that we are being asked to address," he answered. "We need to deal with climate change, we must cater for a human population that is growing at an extraordinarily fast pace; these are huge problems and it does not make sense to limit the number of people that will be working to tackle them. If the scientific community fails to encourage underrepresented groups to join its quest, it will be shooting itself in the foot. We should be trying to get as many people to help as possible."
Of course, the scientific community does not operate within a vacuum. Neither are the attitudes of academics any different from those of individuals in other walks of life. To conclude our conversation, I asked Professor Amaral whether his research might be used to investigate workplace bias within the private sector.
"Some people believe that scientists sit in ivory towers, but our sector operates in much the same way as the ‘outside world’," he replied. "We too are constantly having our performance measured. I see no reason why our findings would not extend to other sectors, such as industry, law, etc. For example, we know that the number of female CEOs is very small. Similar phenomena, therefore, might well be occurring in these areas. There is a potential difficulty in the sense that information concerning productivity might not be as readily available in the private sector as it is within the scientific community. However, I think that this is something that individual businesses could attempt; analyses of whether they are giving the same resources to their female staff members. It would be very interesting to find out whether the same types of bias exist in other areas, and it would be wonderful to see action being taken to rectify any inequalities that are identified."