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Female Bailiwicks

Research shows that women are publishing more articles, but progress is slow in certain fields and in winning prestigious positions

Ana Paula CamposA study conducted by a research group based at the University of Washington, in the United States, indicates that the participation by women in the publication of scientific articles is growing in practically all fields of knowledge worldwide, but the increase in feminine presence has been less vigorous when articles having a single author, those resulting from the individual effort of one researcher, are analyzed separately. Furthermore, in the case of papers bearing several signatures and in various fields of knowledge, fewer women appear as principal author (the one responsible for the most prominent contribution among a group of co-authors), than in the overall index. The study focused on the collection maintained in a digital repository, the JSTOR (acronym for Journal Storage), that contains more than 1,900 periodicals from various countries published in the last four centuries.

Women represent 21.9% of all the authors identified in the JSTOR database. But among papers with a single author, 17% were written by women and 83% by men. “The percentage is still very low,” says Jevin West, author of the study and professor in the Biology Department of the University of Washington. True, the proportion has improved in recent years,. “We can say that for researchers, there is no better time than the present,” suggests Jennifer Jacquet, professor in the Environmental Studies Program of New York University (NYU), and a co-author of the study.

The research is part of the Eigenfactor Project developed by the University of Washington with a view to producing data and mappings of scientific production. Its results were organized on an Internet platform ( West and his colleagues from NYU, Stanford University, and the Santa Fe Institute, all in the United States, conducted the survey of the authors of about two million articles connected with the JSTOR collection, representing 1,765 fields and sub-fields of knowledge, and covering the nearly 350-year period between 1665 and 2011. The study also identified the major topics and fields of knowledge in which women are most prominent and the fields in which they play a clearly minority role. “The areas in which women tend to have the greatest participation are those related to education, sociology, and the family,” observes West. The categories with the highest female participation, between 1665 and 2011 included: division of domestic tasks (68.4% of the total); 19th century literature (65.5%); abortion (63.6%); and uses of language (59.8%). The fields of knowledge in which women participate less frequently in the publication of articles are mathematics (6.6%), philosophy (9.4%), economic methodology (4%) and other areas (see graphic). Some fields, such as engineering and physics, were not mapped in the study because they are not well represented in the JSTOR.

Ana Paula CamposThe position occupied by women in the list of co-authors of articles written by several people received special attention in the study. It was found that in many fields women are under-represented, both in appearance in the first position on the list—which usually indicates the principal author—and in the last position, usually reserved for the advisor or coordinator of the research group. In the case of molecular and cellular biology, for example, participation by women as principal or sole author of an article was 15.8% between 1665 and 2010—compared with 26.7% participation by women when position was not considered.

Researchers suggested a number of hypotheses to explain why there are fewer women than men in the most prominent positions. They relied, for example, on studies according to which female researchers were said to be less likely than men to become involved in collaborative projects, those that result in papers having several authors. In one of those studies, written in 2001, Mary Frank Fox of the Georgia Institute of Technology observes that women collaborated less often than men, both during their undergraduate years and in more advanced stages of research, as well as in the publication of articles, a conclusion she reached after circulating a questionnaire among 5,000 students from 22 universities.

Another theory is that during the informal negotiations held to discuss the position each researcher would have on the list of authors, men were more assertive. West and his team mention the book Women Don’t Ask: the High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation – and Positive Strategies for Change (2007), by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The book compiles hundreds of depositions by women to suggest that men are four times more likely to ask for a pay raise and to express a desire to be promoted than women with the same qualifications. During the 1990s, Laschever participated in Project Access, a study by Harvard University of women in scientific careers, funded by the National Science Foundation. Among the conclusions of the research was that American female researchers usually preferred to work on what were considered “niche” research problems, rather than delve into emerging topics that attracted competition from many researchers.

Ana Paula CamposThe University of Washington study presents a panorama of scientific publications, but does not closely examine differences among countries. In Japan, for example, women comprised only 11.1% of the academic work force of the country in 2004, while Portugal exhibited a rate of 40%, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In Brazil the situation is considered more favorable when compared with other countries. “Here, more and more women are entering at all levels of academia,” says Jacqueline Leta, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a specialist in issues of gender in science. Figures from the Board of Directors for Research Groups of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) show that women have been expanding their opportunities in scientific research, but that such growth slows when women near the pinnacle of their careers. In 2010, women became a majority among doctoral students in Brazil, at about 55% of the total—compared with 45% in 2000. Now, in terms of number of researchers, they account for half the Brazilian contingent. Among leaders of research groups, Brazilian women are also gaining: they represented 45% of total leaders in 2010, compared with 39% in 2000. Jacqueline Leta observes, however, that men receive more productivity grants from the CNPq than do women. “This is still seen as a salary supplement,” she says.

In the opinion of Maria Conceição da Costa, a researcher at the Pagu Unit for Gender Studies at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), the difficulty women experience in reaching the upper end of the scientific career path in Brazil shows the limits of the argument according to which the academic world is a meritocracy. “Regardless of field, the further they get in climbing the career ladder, the more prejudice they encounter,” she says. However, geneticist Mayana Zatz, of the University of São Paulo (USP), does not believe prejudice is a problem. “I don’t believe female researchers are discriminated against in Brazil. But I cannot say the same for the United States, where their salaries are lower than men’s. There they are not even entitled to maternity leave,” she says. To Zatz, the great difficulty encountered by female researchers lies in the conflict between professional ambition and their desire to become mothers, a dilemma they usually face between the ages of 35 and 40.

“Today, men take a more active part in child-raising, but breast-feeding can only be done by the mother. No matter how much the father participates, the women’s burden is always heavier. After that period, women can go back into research,” she says. Zatz, who gave birth to two children between earning her master’s and doctoral degrees, even before she turned 30, admits that she had help from a nanny, which enabled her to shorten the length of time she was absent from the university. “Today, certainly, it is harder to obtain that type of support system here in Brazil, but we still have more options than women in the United States have,” she adds. Maria Conceição da Costa, from Unicamp, says that many women give up the idea of competing for the top levels of a scientific career because, having many other interests in life, “they don’t see the point of dedicating themselves full-time to an ultra-competitive system.”

Ana Paula CamposThe limited participation by women in certain fields of knowledge, such as the exact sciences and engineering, is a problem observed all over the world, one attributed largely to cultural factors. Suely Druck, a professor in the Institute of Mathematics at Fluminense Federal University (UFF), believes that the origin of the low female participation in research in exact sciences is in the basic educational system. According to Druck, as they go through high school, girls lose interest in math. “It is during this phase that they need to be accepted by groups of friends, and so they don’t want to be identified as nerds,” she says. In 2005 the researcher was a mentor of the Brazilian Public School Math Olympics Program (OBMEP). She has found, since the first edition of the competition, that girls represent 45% of awardees at level 1, which includes students from 6th and 7th grade. At level 2 of the competition, (8th and 9th graders), female participation among awardees falls to 20%. And at the highest level (high school), girls account for only 7% of the winners.

An affinity for writing
In the case of Beatriz Barbuy, a professor at the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences of USP, an aptitude for scientific writing is a determining factor in the quality of the papers produced. “That’s when I am able to organize the ideas and the direction of my research,” says Barbuy, who has already published about 210 articles in international science journals and has been quoted in 8,000 works by other researchers. However, she adds a proviso: “I’m sorry to say that many researchers avoid quoting women in their works.”

Mayana Zatz acknowledges that women are less aggressive in promoting themselves. “Men are better at selling themselves in the research environment,” she says. A study recently published by the University of California shows that researchers in the field of political science avoid using their earlier works as references in new articles—a practice observed more commonly among men. According to the study, headed by Barbara Walter of the University of California at San Diego, women are not as incisive as men in terms of self-promotion. The study analyzed 3,000 articles published between 1980 and 2006 in 12 periodicals. Papers signed only by men were quoted five times more than those signed only by women. This happens, says the researcher, because women avoid citing their own work—and also because men quote other men more frequently than one would expect.