Communicating about the representativeness of women in scientific productivity: a step towards greater equality

One of my main motivations for studying medicine was to fight discrimination and social (and gender) inequalities by providing equal healthcare for all. I became aware of gender discrimination through personal experience. While on maternity leave after the birth of my child, I received my new employment contract and I discovered that my working hours had been reduced by 50% without me being consulted. The message was clear: “Now you are a mum, you need to take care of your child!”. As a new mum I felt that I had lost my ability to decide if I was able to handle both my family responsibilities and my career without neglecting one more than the other. While the intention was probably not malicious, this type of decision denotes a stereotyped view of the role of women in society (and at work). It was disturbing to see that a few months later, a male colleague did not experience the same reduction in his working time when his first child was born. 

In 2015, I analysed the data on the research productivity of professors at our medical school and compared the results for women and men. During the previous decade, 60% of our medical students were women, but intriguingly only 18% of all-ranked professors were women (30% of assistant, 19% of associate, and 13% of full professors were women). On average, women professors had lower h-indexes (-9.5-points), had published fewer articles (-71 articles), and their papers were also less cited (-2516 citations) than those of their male counterparts. As research productivity indicators can only increase, the lower scientific productivity of women professors overall was probably explained by the fact that many women were recently promoted as assistant professors, the lowest professorial rank. Unfortunately, data on marital status and parenthood were not available, although they are known to be associated with research productivity. It would have been important to assess representativeness of women among professors after adjustment for those confounders. But it was also possible that the academic research community perpetuated sexist attitudes and unequal treatment of researchers based solely on their gender.

Interestingly, in a research study of published articles, we found that research tasks were stereotypically distributed with no change over time (15 years): women contributed more frequently to data collection and materials provision, to administrative, technical, and logistical support while men contributed more frequently to reflective tasks (conception, design, writing, fundraising). This might explain differences in the distribution of prominent authorship positions. During the covid-19 pandemic, research production has exploded globally compared to previous years; in the meantime there have been huge economic consequences with women reported as being the most affected. The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to assess the place of women in scientific production and to assess if gender disparities were deeper compared to pre-pandemic. In this article, we report that women’s visibility in prominent authorship positions on covid related manuscripts was deeply reduced during the early phase of the pandemic, but then narrowed in the most recent months reaching values very similar to pre-pandemic. 

As scientific publication is key for academic promotion, the objective of our larger ATHENA project is to assess if women first authors have the same chance of acceptance for publication as men first authors, independent of key study and author attributes. This project, funded by the Swiss National Foundation, is ongoing and involves a large number of biomedical journals from various specialties. 

Angèle Gayet-Ageron, head of unit, professor, Division of Clinical Epidemiology, University Hospitals of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.

Competing interests: see full declaration on research paper