More women than ever are embarking on scientific careers

Quantum physicist Lisa Ringena makes adjustments to the atom trap trace analysis system at the Kirchhoff Institute of Physics in Heidelberg, Germany.Credit: Lisi Niesner / Reuters

Women are more likely to start research careers today than they were 20 years ago, a longitudinal study of the publication records of millions of researchers around the world finds. But they are less likely to pursue their academic careers than their male contemporaries and generally publish fewer articles.

Ludo Waltman, a quantitative scientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues dove deep into the huge database of quotes and summaries Scopus, hosted by Elsevier. They examined the publishing careers of some six million researchers worldwide who wrote at least three papers between 1996 and 2018. The team posted their findings on the preprint server.1.

The authors found that the proportion of women starting scientific careers increased over time. In 2000, 33% of researchers starting their editorial careers were women; which has risen to 40% in recent years (see “Gender gap”). Waltman says that while the results are not surprising, it is important that we now have concrete statistics confirming the trend for many countries and scientific disciplines.

Gender gap: The proportion of scientists starting their publishing careers who are female increased between 2000 and 2016.


In the physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, male authors still represented a much higher proportion of authors than women, even in recent years (see “Differences by discipline”).

Career progression

Waltman and his team took their work further by tracking researchers’ publication records to see if they continued to write scientific papers – an indicator of pursuing a scientific career. They found that women were less likely to continue publishing articles than men, regardless of the year they started their careers.

But Waltman says his team was surprised – given that there is a well-known problem of fewer women than men advancing into leadership positions in science – that women were only slightly less likely to continue. to publish articles as men. They found that 54% of women who started publishing in 2000 had quit 15 years later, compared to 52% of men.

Differences by discipline: The proportion of women starting research careers has increased in almost all fields.


Nonetheless, “while the length of scientific careers for men and women is quite similar, there are significant differences between men and women in the way their scientific careers develop,” he says. In general, men seemed to progress more quickly to higher roles – judged roughly by appearing as the last author of an article – more quickly. On average, they also published 15-20% more articles than women during the data period, although there are large variations between different fields.

A significant limitation of the study was that it excluded data from India and China – which together make up about a third of the world’s population – because the authors’ algorithms struggled to unambiguously assign gender. on behalf of these countries. It also ignored non-binary authors.

Positive image

Flaminio Squazzoni, a sociologist at the University of Milan in Italy, agrees that the lack of data from India and China is a big gap. “It’s likely that if we had data on these two countries, the perspective on female academics could be slightly worse,” Squazzoni predicts.

Nonetheless, “it’s an honest study” and the Scopus database is a rich source of information, Squazzoni says. Her own team published work this year showing that there is little gender bias in peer review processes.2. That, combined with this latest study, suggests that investments in gender diversity programs in science could pay off, he says.

Waltman says that while the overall picture looks positive for more women entering science, it’s important to remember that the increase is an average across many countries and scientific disciplines, and that there is huge variation. in the numbers. He also wishes to stress that scientific careers are not limited to the number of publications. “The bibliometric lens through which many studies, including our own, examine diversity in science is very narrow,” he says.

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