Researchers trapped in a vicious circle

Published Oct 05, 2017

Women are less likely to receive recognition for their research, according to a study at KTH. They are side-lined by the funding system and risk becoming trapped in a vicious circle.

In previous studies, research policy expert Ulf Sandström has shown that researchers have more opportunities to gain recognition the more academic articles they publish. A new study, based on an analysis of the publications of 48,000 researchers, surveys the differences between the success of men and women.

Among those who publish most of all, and thus have the greatest chance of gaining citations, there are few women. On average, they attain up to two-thirds of what the men achieve. According to the study, the underlying explanation is traditional gender differences in status and academic rank.

“The publication gap between men and women is a familiar problem. Now we can show that the reason for it is structural, due to major failings on gender equality,” says Ulf Sandström, who conducts research at the School of Industrial Engineering and Management, ITM.

Women are often given a less prominent role – they hold lower academic positions and perform a more subordinate function within the research team. As a rule, the research is led by a man, who thus features as first author, while women provide the material and the data in the projects.

In the eyes of research funding bodies too, women are overshadowed by their male colleagues. When competing for grants, publication credits are a major plus, an area where men are already ahead.

Women lag behind

All in all, a pattern is created whereby the career path is more rapid for men, while women lag behind and risk becoming trapped in a vicious circle. If you are not given the chance to head projects as a young researcher, you have no opportunity to attract your own funding, which is vital for the next stage of your career.

“Many women become stuck in a loop that can be very hard to escape. Of course men suffer from this as well but it is much more common among female researchers,” Ulf Sandström points out.

He recommends more active efforts on gender equality and would like to see a change in the allocation of research funding. Systems where big grants go to a few people risk making the gender differences permanent, he thinks.

“Allocation is currently extremely skewed, with women often receiving smaller research grants. We need a funding system that gives more people the chance to receive more resources in order to run proper research projects.”

Ulf Sandström’s study is based on a survey of all publications at Swedish research institutions in 2008–2011. But the publication gap between men and women has remained the same since the 1970s, emphasises Ulf Sandström, who would like to see significant efforts made to achieve change.

“We need to do more than simply pay lip service to improving gender equality. We need to be more creative and be more open to changing the grants system so that all researchers can compete on equal terms.”

Cultural explanation

Anna Wahl, Vice President for Gender equality and values, sees the differences between men’s and women’s publication success as a reflection of power relationships within academia.

“Much of the academic culture has to do with belonging – people acknowledge each other through citations. Discrimination can take the form of action and non-action. You could say that women become non-cited.”

Anna Wahl highlights initiatives in progress to increase awareness of gender equality and discrimination in assessment processes for research grants, for example at the Swedish Research Council.

But the gender differences have hardly changed since the 1970s?
“It has to do with powerful, deeply embedded structures, with a great deal of influence and strong bonds of loyalty. It can be easier for an individual to be aware, but within a group, weighing in aspects of gender equality when assessing what is good science can be viewed as disruptive and provocative. There is resistance to this, especially in the fields of science and technology.”

KTH is working on a broad front to improve knowledge on gender equality, including in recruitment and promotion. Goals include attaining a balance between men and women among experts, actively working to attract applicants of both sexes, reviewing assessment templates and being open to the fact that men’s and women’s CVs may look different.

“It is important to work in a way that is not judgmental or accusatory; this is about structures that are much bigger than KTH. It is good if we can develop a climate in which we can openly reflect on these issues together.”

Anna Wahl wants expertise on gender equality work to be included in the specifications of requirements for professors to be employed at KTH. Their work should incorporate a gender perspective and they should have an action plan for how they intend to work to promote gender equality, she thinks.

“Gender equality is largely a management question. Changes depend on what happens at an everyday level in the research team, how the professor relates to their team of researchers. This is where it is possible to change whether someone is being overshadowed, who is at the top of the list of authors, and which people are visible and which people are invisible,” says Anna Wahl.

Text: Christer Gummeson

Ulf Sandström’s study “Vicious circles of gender bias, lower positions, and lower performance” is published in the journal Plos One.

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