Study finds female scientists collaborate differently

November 4, 2016, Public Library of Science
Network of male and female collaborators. Credit: Roland Roberts, and Steven Valkenberg, Flickr

Succeeding in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines can be very challenging for female faculty. Now, a Northwestern University study of the collaboration patterns of STEM faculty publishing 4 November in the open-access journal PLOS Biology has found that the playing fields in some disciplines are not as level as they first appear.

"Our findings in molecular biology, particularly genomics, are what surprised us the most," said Luís Amaral, a professor of chemical and biological engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. "There is a lot of research money in this high-profile area, and women are not represented proportionally. This raises all sorts of questions as to what kind of cultural environment has been created in the field."

Knowing that collaboration is critical to the scientific enterprise, Amaral and Teresa K. Woodruff, a Northwestern Medicine reproductive biologist, focused on this factor in their study of the underrepresented group of female faculty in STEM. The data analysis of the complete publication records of nearly 4,000 faculty members in six STEM disciplines at top research universities across the USA produced a number of findings.

The researchers found that, broadly speaking, female faculty (for the six different disciplines in the study) have as many collaborators, or co-authors, as male faculty and that female faculty tend to return to the same collaborators a little less than males. Previous research by Amaral had shown that novel collaborations have a greater likelihood of producing work of higher impact.

However, those aggregate patterns have to be interpreted with care, Amaral cautioned, because the situation can change within subdisciplines. By digging deeper, the researchers found that females are underrepresented in large teams in genomics (a subdiscipline of molecular biology). This could be an indication of a negative cultural milieu in this particular subfield, the researchers said.

"We want to understand ways in which males and females live different experiences in STEM disciplines, so that a level playing field can be created where needed," Woodruff said.

"Much more progress needs to be made for underrepresented groups to feel welcomed in STEM disciplines," Amaral said. "In fact, the degree of progress is not even uniform within a single discipline, so one needs to make sure females are not being excluded from specific subdisciplines."

In an accompanying Primer, "Rosalind's Ghost: Biology, Collaboration, and the Female," also publishing 4 November, Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University, who was not involved in the study, sets this work in context. "One factor remains fairly constant: women are underrepresented in terms of authorships, including first and/or last authorships (whichever is more prestigious), coauthorships, and in the granting of scientific prizes," she writes.

"Overall, the more elite the scientist, the more likely they are to work at the international level; however, female collaborators are less likely to be working internationally and are more likely to collaborate locally. This means that they are also less likely to coauthor with top scholars." Wagner notes that previous studies and the new findings from Amaral's group serve to remind us that the legacy of Rosalind Franklin, whose crucial work on the structure of the DNA double helix over 60 years ago was notoriously underappreciated at the time, lives on.

Explore further: Tool could help uncover bias against female faculty in STEM fields

More information: Xiao Han T. Zeng et al, Differences in Collaboration Patterns across Discipline, Career Stage, and Gender, PLOS Biology (2016). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002573

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2016
If you want to eliminate the influence of gonads in human interaction, then remove the gonads.

This will not be as painful as it sounds. Many people already opt out of reproducing. Gonads age us prematurely, unduly influence our actions and thoughts, and are the source of many diseases and not just STDs mind you.

In the future many will conclude that gonads are just not worth the hassle and they will decide to address the problem directly. The world will be populated by a few very calm and reasonable 200yo people.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Nov 04, 2016
"11 Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."" matt19

-So prescient. Was jesus a eunuch or did he just act that way? We may never know.
24volts
5 / 5 (2) Nov 05, 2016
I know this is heretical to say this these days but could it simply be a smaller percentage of women are interested in the various sciences than men are?
tblakely1357
not rated yet Nov 05, 2016
If you want to eliminate the influence of gonads in human interaction, then remove the gonads.

This will not be as painful as it sounds. Many people already opt out of reproducing. Gonads age us prematurely, unduly influence our actions and thoughts, and are the source of many diseases and not just STDs mind you.

In the future many will conclude that gonads are just not worth the hassle and they will decide to address the problem directly. The world will be populated by a few very calm and reasonable 200yo people.


'Toxic Masculinity' and all that. Well there are plenty of men in our society nowadays who act like they have no gonads already. An actual operation is redundant.
AJZipper
not rated yet Nov 07, 2016
I know this is heretical to say this these days but could it simply be a smaller percentage of women are interested in the various sciences than men are?


I wouldn't say this is heretical, it may very well be possible. But I believe this is more to do with the representation of the the population within the field, and not necessarily women period. If the women in the field are not receiving sufficient and appropriate recognition for their efforts THAT is a crucial error on our part as scientists. And, of course, we would expect to see future interests stagnate as a result.
haycric
not rated yet Nov 13, 2016
"women are not represented proportionally", actually - they are represented by their proportionate interest in STEM subjects. Men aren't represented proportionally in nursing - do we get grants to actively round up and promote male nurses? Give it a rest.
postfuture
not rated yet Dec 27, 2016
"women are not represented proportionally", actually - they are represented by their proportionate interest in STEM subjects. Men aren't represented proportionally in nursing - do we get grants to actively round up and promote male nurses? Give it a rest.


May be it is a good idea to have more male nurses!? I, personally, like male nurses... If we actively promote male nurses and give grants then it can work! More male nurses and more female scientists! Thank you!

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