Despite rising awareness of gender inequalities in academic medicine and the life sciences, women remain underrepresented in these fields. The higher up the career ladder you go, the more skewed the balance becomes. Women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to salaries, research grants and citations. Aside from discrimination, what other factors could be contributing to these gender gaps?
Findings from a recent study by Lerchenmueller et al. suggest that gender differences in self-promotion may play a role. Male scientists were found to frame their research findings more positively than female scientists, and subsequently received higher rates of citations. Identifying and addressing these differences could have significant implications, as research visibility is often closely linked to career progress, including salary, promotion opportunities and funding.
Prior to this work, there was limited evidence for the existence of gender differences in self-presentation of research and the downstream impacts this may have.To explore these issues, the researchers analyzed the use of 25 positive words, such as “novel” and “unprecedented”, in the titles and abstracts of 101,720 clinical research articles and 6.2 million general life science articles published between 2002 and 2017. They then compared the gender of the first and last authors of each research article.
- Articles with female first and last authors were 12.3 per cent less likely to include positive terms than articles in which the first and/or last author was male (21.4 per cent in high impact journals)
- “Novel” was used 59.2 per cent more often in articles written by male first and/or last authors.
- Positive language was associated with 9.4 per cent higher subsequent citations (13 per cent in high impact journals).
The findings were consistent even after accounting for factors such as scientific area of study, scientific journal and year of publication, with the authors concluding that the study provides "large scale evidence that men in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly may present their own research more favorably than women, and that these differences may help to call attention to their research through higher downstream citations." They added that “These findings suggest that differences in the degree of self-promotion may contribute to the well-documented gender gaps in academic medicine and in science more broadly.”
What could be behind these differences? Do women experience more self-doubt and modesty than men, and subsequently refrain from presenting their work in a more positive manner? As an observational study, this research doesn’t establish the cause of the differences, and doesn’t address the impact that the journal publishing process may play. Previous research has suggested that peer review standards may be higher for women, potentially discouraging them from using positive language to describe their research. Added to this, journal editors may unfavorably alter manuscripts by female authors to a greater extent than those with male authors.
Further research is needed to address these issues, but the findings highlight the importance of establishing fair and transparent guidelines for journal editors, to help ensure research by female authors is presented in as positive a manner as that by male authors. Minimizing gender differences in self-promotion of research could help more female scientists to achieve their potential.
Reference: Lerchenmueller, M. J., Sorenson, O., & Jena, A. B. (2019). Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study.bmj, 367. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l6573