A long-standing principle of science as a social institution is that it should operate on the principle of merit and be free from the disparities that characterize the rest of social life.1 Yet science remains an unequal playing field for women. A recent study from R-QUEST2 links this to a resource gap.3
By Kody Steffy, Post.Doc, NIFU
While the situation has improved in recent decades, only around a third of European researchers are women. At the highest ranks the disparity is greater. Only a quarter of senior professorships in Europe are held by women, and in STEM fields, this figure is just 15 percent.4
Researchers have tried to explain these patterns by pointing to specific mechanisms. Potential culprits have included the gender composition of prior PhD cohorts and publication rates. Yet recent research has shown that these are at best partial explanations.
In male-dominated fields, changes are happening so glacially that it would take decades or even centuries to arrive at parity without intervention.5 A major study of 1.5 million authors in 83 countries found that most of the supposed gender gap in publication rates is due to differing career lengths.6 The differences that do exist appear to be only at the most elite levels of science.7
Since specific mechanisms do not explain away gender disparities, most research acknowledges that gender as a social process does not stop at the doors of science. Instead, it affects every aspect of life inside the academy just as it does outside of it. As much research has shown, gender operates through the values and symbols of scientific culture, through social interactions among scientists, through scientific identities, and through scientific policies and practices.8
Sociologists refer to the unequal results of these processes as structural sexism.9 This term does not imply that anyone within science is necessarily acting with sexist intent. Instead, the term acknowledges the historical and contemporary processes that influence the careers of scientists. Because scientific organizations have been historically dominated by men, they reflect the interests of men and disadvantage women in subtle but pervasive ways.10
Study after study documents unequal career-related outcomes for women in science. Women tend to be paid less,11 do disproportionate amounts of service work,12 and face barriers in promotion to tenure.13 Field-specific studies show further disparities. In economics, women are penalized for coauthoring,14 face more hostile and patronizing questions during presentations,15 and have their papers held up in peer review half a year longer than men’s.16
Scientific resources are important for careers
One less studied aspect of scientific work has to do with access to resources. Without access to relevant resources, new knowledge cannot be generated and researchers cannot advance their careers. Yet until recently, a lack of large-scale data made research on the topic challenging.
Survey data collected by R-QUEST have changed this. The survey covered the fields of economics, physics, and cardiology in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. It asked researchers about access to specific resources they need to make significant progress in their research. Respondents were asked both about basic resources that are essential for research productivity and social network resources that connect researchers to career and publishing opportunities.
We analyzed these data in a recently published study,17 in which we asked two simple research questions. Do men and women researchers report different levels of access to resources? And does this vary across fields of research?
Women report lower access to basic scientific resources and social network resources
Even after taking into consideration key factors like academic seniority and national differences, we find that women report significantly lower access to key resources than men.
First, we analyzed a scale of basic resources, such as research support staff, grantwriting assistance, and data access. Here, we find clear and significant gender disparities. Our models suggest that the biggest gap is in economics and the smallest in physics, but each of the three fields shows a clear gender disparity. The size of the gender gap in economics and cardiology is roughly equal to the resource gap between the most senior and the most junior researchers in the sample.
Next, we analyzed a scale of social network resources, like opportunities to collaborate with internationally leading groups and support from senior leadership. Again, we see evidence of a gender disparity. However, for these resources cardiology stands out as particularly unequal. Our models estimate that the gap is several times larger in cardiology compared to economics and physics.
Finally, we analyzed each of the sixteen resources separately. For these analyses, we looked at all of the fields together. Results suggest that some of the biggest gaps are for resources to retain staff, technical and research support, grant-writing assistance, having supportive leaders, and working climate. For these resources, we find gender disparities ranging from roughly 10 to roughly 15 percentage points in favor of men.
In short, we find that women and men report different levels of access to a range of research resources. We should note that each of the three fields in our sample are male-dominated. Studies of fields with greater gender parity are clearly needed. Yet we also note that women remain underrepresented in senior positions across most fields in virtually all of Europe.18 And so we find little reason to assume that our findings apply only to our sample fields.
We see potential career implications of our findings. If researchers can only pursue projects that are feasible given their circumstances, resource disparities may pose barriers to risky or resource-intensive work. In this way, the resource gap could limit the careers of women in science.
The myth of meritocracy is a barrier to equality
As yet another example of inequality in core scientific processes, we also see policy implications of our study. Like others,19 we see a tension between policies premised on a mythical scientific meritocracy and mounting evidence of gender bias. One cannot simultaneously believe that resources are distributed on the basis of merit and that women are systematically disadvantaged. These ideas are contradictory.
Either we acknowledge that unequal social processes affect science or we passively accept gender disparities. We argue that it is time to seriously consider transformative gender policies. Change will not happen by clinging to a meritocratic ideology that delegitimizes effective policies. Policies such as quotas, targets, and affirmative action hold management accountable and demand results within a given timeframe.20 Importantly, they are effective.21 The fight for gender equality in science is a political struggle against long-entrenched power structures and the solution will require policies that recognize that.
- Merton 1942
- The Centre for Research Quality and Policy Impact Studies (R-QUEST) is an 8-year center financed by Forskningsrådet. https://www.r-quest.no .
- Steffy 2021
- European Commission 2018
- Holman, Stuart-Fox, and Hauser 2018
- Huang et al. 2020
- Abramo, Aksnes, and D’Angelo 2021
- Acker 1990
- Homan 2019
- Acker 1990
- European Commission 2018
- Guarino and Borden 2017
- Weisshaar 2017
- Sarsons et al. 2021
- Dupas et al. 2021
- Hengel 2017
- Steffy 2021
- European Commission 2018
- Roos et al. 2020
- Roos et al. 2020
- Kalev, Dobbin, and Kelly 2006
- Abramo, Giovanni, Dag W. Aksnes, and Ciriaco Andrea D’Angelo. 2021. “Gender Differences in Research Performance within and between Countries: Italy vs Norway.” Journal of Informetrics15(2):101144. doi: 10.1016/j.joi.2021.101144.
- Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender and Society 4(2):139–58.
- Dupas, Pascaline, Alicia Sasser Modestino, Muriel Niederle, Justin Wolfers, and The Seminar Dynamics Collective. 2021. “Gender and the Dynamics of Economics Seminars.” National Bureau of Economic Research w28494. doi: 10.3386/w28494.
- European Commission. 2018. “She Figures 2018.” Retrieved March 9, 2020 ( https://op.europa.eu:443/en/publication-detail/-/publication/9540ffa1-4478-11e9-a8ed-01aa75ed71a1/language-en ).
- Guarino, Cassandra M., and Victor M. H. Borden. 2017. “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” Research in Higher Education 58(6):672–94. doi: 10.1007/s11162-017-9454-2.
- Hengel, Erin. 2017. “Are Women Held to Higher Standards? Evidence from Peer Review.” Cambridge Working Paper Economics 77.
- Holman, Luke, Devi Stuart-Fox, and Cindy E. Hauser. 2018. “The Gender Gap in Science: How Long until Women Are Equally Represented?” PLOS Biology 16(4):e2004956. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956.
- Homan, Patricia. 2019. “Structural Sexism and Health in the United States: A New Perspective on Health Inequality and the Gender System.” American Sociological Review 84(3):486–516. doi: 10.1177/0003122419848723.
- Huang, Junming, Alexander J. Gates, Roberta Sinatra, and Albert-László Barabási. 2020. “Historical Comparison of Gender Inequality in Scientific Careers across Countries and Disciplines.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117(9):4609–16. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1914221117.
- Kalev, Alexandra, Frank Dobbin, and Erin Kelly. 2006. “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies.” American Sociological Review71(4):589–617. doi: 10.1177/000312240607100404.
- Merton, Robert K. 1942. The Sociology of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Roos, Hannelore, Jelle Mampaey, Jeroen Huisman, and Joost Luyckx. 2020. “The Failure of Gender Equality Initiatives in Academia: Exploring Defensive Institutional Work in Flemish Universities.” Gender & Society 0891243220914521. doi: 10.1177/0891243220914521.
- Sarsons, Heather, Klarita Gërxhani, Ernesto Reuben, and Arthur Schram. 2021. “Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work.” Journal of Political Economy 129(1):101–47. doi: 10.1086/711401.
- Steffy, Kody. 2021. “Gendered Patterns of Unmet Resource Need among Academic Researchers.” Socius 7:23780231211039584. doi: 10.1177/23780231211039585.
- Weisshaar, Katherine. 2017. “Publish and Perish? An Assessment of Gender Gaps in Promotion to Tenure in Academia.” Social Forces 96(2):529–60. doi: 10.1093/sf/sox052.
Photo: FG Trade