As gender equality in science moves further to the forefront of policy agendas, we are seeing more discussion on the perceived challenges facing women in research careers. But what is the reality of the relative output and quality of the science produced by men and women?

In a 2003 EU report entitled Gender and Excellence in the Making, the EU Commissioner for Research asserted that “the promotion of gender equality in science is a vital part of the European Union’s research policy,” and called for public debate informed by research into the mechanisms by which this inequality has emerged (1). Part of the problem can be encapsulated in terms of two apparent conundrums: the Productivity Puzzle and the Impact Enigma (see box).

New research challenges long-held perceptions
Against this backdrop of perceived gender differences, recent research has cast doubt on the validity of the underlying assumptions about productivity and impact (2). An analysis of the published research of 254 Spanish Ph.D. graduates showed no statistically significant gender differences in output (or lack thereof), degree of collaboration or citations per article. The individuals analyzed came from a range of scientific disciplines, but all were awarded their doctorates between 1990 and 1995, and so were of a similar scientific “age”, suggesting that previous differences in output and impact were artifacts of a skewed distribution of women across academic grades.

A puzzle and an enigma

The Productivity Puzzle is the phenomenon whereby women publish fewer articles than men. This observation has been confirmed repeatedly over recent decades, and several reasons have been put forward to explain it. These include sociobiological factors, such as the need for women to balance career with family obligations, and sociopolitical factors, such as systematic gender bias in the process of peer review for journal publication and competitive grant funding.

The Impact Enigma stems from the observation that women have higher citation impact (citations per article) than men. It has been suggested that this might be because women have a publication strategy that emphasizes quality over quantity or that they participate more in collaborative work, resulting in more robust study design and execution.

In keeping with this, a study of radiation oncologists at US academic institutions showed that the h-index (determined for each individual in Scopus) was lower for women than men (mean 6.4 versus 9.4), but that when the results were adjusted for academic ranking, the gender differential almost disappears.

Gender and productivity
Elba Mauleón and Maria Bordons of the Institute for Documentary Studies on Science and Technology (IEDCYT) at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Madrid have studied the effects of gender on scientific and technological activity in their own institution.

In Mauleón and Bordons’ recent study published in Life Sciences (3), no differences by gender were found in productivity, impact factor of publication journals or number of citations received. According to Bordons, “productivity of both men and women increased with professional rank, and inter-gender differences within each rank were not observed.

“Interestingly, among the youngest scientists with less than ten years at CSIC, women were more productive than their male counterparts, while the inverse relation holds for intermediate levels of seniority. Further longitudinal studies will tell us if this means that new generations of women are more competitive or if women change their publication strategy over the years as a response to personal, social or economic reasons.”

While there is clearly a long road ahead until we begin to see truly proportional gender representation in science, it may be that with the aid of objective bibliometric tools, it is already possible to demonstrate that the reality is moving further away from perception all the time.

Useful links:


(1) EU report (2003) “Gender and Excellence in the Making”.
(2) Borrego, A., Barrios, M., Villarroya, A., Fras, A. and Ollé, C. (2008) “Research output of spanish postdoctoral scientists: does gender matter?”, In: Kretschmer H. and Havemann F. (Eds.): Proceedings of WIS (Fourth International Conference on Webometrics, Informetrics and Scientometrics & Ninth COLLNET Meeting). Berlin: Creative Commons.
(3) Mauleón, E., Bordons, M. and Oppenheim, C. (2008) “The effect of gender of research staff success in life sciences in the Spanish National Research Council”, Research Evaluation, Vol. 17, Issue 3, pp. 213–225.
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