Study finds gender disparity in STEM publishing and citations

CU Anschutz and CU Denver faculty weigh in on the issue of female-author underrepresentation

September 11, 2017

What do the worlds of literary and science publishing have in common? Research indicates that women authors are underrepresented in both genres.

Since 2010, VIDA, a nonprofit organization, has tracked the underrepresentation of women in literary publishing. Recently, research from Indiana University-Bloomington (IUB) has been in the news for uncovering similar gender disparities in medical and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) publishing.

Maryam Darbeheshti, PhD
Maryam Darbeheshti, PhD

The IUB research was first published by under the title “Bibliometrics: Global gender disparities in science” and then featured in NPR’s Science Friday in December 2016. The study analyzes prominent author positions—sole authorship, first-authorship and last-authorship—and found that female researchers are less likely to hold one of these positions, and “when a woman was in any of these roles, a paper attracted fewer citations than in cases in which a man was in one of these roles.”

CU Anschutz Professor of Medicine Margaret Wierman, MD, explained the impact of these findings. “Limited access to senior authorship inhibits a female faculty member’s ability to get recognition,” she said. “Ultimately, this will adversely affect her chances of moving smoothly through the promotion process.”

Professor of Mechanical Engineering Maryam Darbeheshti, PhD, with CU Denver’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), agrees that less access to authorship, and less subsequent citations, impedes professional advancement. “When a woman is cited in papers less often than her male counterparts, she is less likely to move up in the field,” Darbeheshti said, “which would result in her having a less-prominent voice in the field.”

Data prompts discussion

CU Anschutz Professor Maggie Wierman
Margaret Wierman, MD

When considering potential causes of the publishing disparity, Wierman points out that female STEM professionals might be on a career track that differs in pace from their male counterparts. “If the early years of her career require major child care responsibilities, her ability to lead a team, instead of just being part of one, is compromised,” she said. “Her timeline to senior publications is slowed compared to men.”

Darbeheshti notes “women have made huge strides in STEM fields, but we must remain wary of institutionalized sexism, such as biased language that perpetuates gender stereotypes of STEM professionals.”

The professors also questioned whether unconscious biases in the selection of STEM leadership based on gender and differing values placed on various roles in TEAM (collaborative) science have contributed to the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in publishing.

Changing future paradigms

Changing the status quo to include more female authorships and citations will require awareness of the complex causes of the disparity, as well as actions to create a new publishing paradigm.

“As a leader for the Program in Gender Diversity for the Department of Medicine (DOM), in the CU Anschutz School of Medicine (SOM),” Wierman said, “I’m involved in creating a plan to enrich the diversity of faculty based on results of data from the Strategic Initiative on Gender Equity Focus Group.”

Alongside professors and faculty, students at CU Denver and CU Anschutz are also making strides to promote gender equality in STEM education.

In April 2017, The Women in STEM Club at CU Anschutz held its first annual Spring Symposium, which focused on the theme of “Empowerment and Inspiration” and featured female Anschutz professors and medical professionals discussing challenges and successes on their career paths.

On the CU Denver campus in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), a similar club connects female STEM students and professionals. “Student organizations such as Women in STEM (WISTEM) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) have created a supportive community of women and men who realize the importance of gender equality in the field and in our society as a whole,” Darbeheshti said.

Additionally, the Center for Women’s Health Research, directed by CU Anschutz Professor Judy Regensteiner, MD, hosts regular events focused on future female STEM students. Each year, Girls Career Day invites 50 high school girls to visit the Anschutz Medical Campus and experience talks and demonstrations about careers in science and medicine.

Excellence that reflects diversity

The atmosphere on both campuses is one of change. Professors and students are spearheading important conversations about subjectivity around gender in seemingly objective fields. Through the conscious efforts of our institutions, students, professors and faculty, medical and STEM professions are moving toward a standard of excellence that is not just interested in diversity, but defined by it.

“By discussing the strides we’ve made as diverse STEM professionals, we can be a role model to our students,” Darbeheshti said.