Female first-year Ph.D. students in “bench” biology disciplines—such as molecular biology, cellular biology, and genetics—spend significantly more hours in lab than their male classmates do. Yet, for every 100 hours spent at work, these female students are 15% less likely to publish a paper during that first year than their male counterparts are, a new study reports. The observed authorship difference could give male students an edge when applying for postdoctoral and faculty positions, contributing to the gender gap in university faculty in these fields, the study suggests. Biology is notable because, although approximately equal numbers of men and women have earned biology Ph.D.s in the United States over the past 10 years, the equity does not carry over to the faculty level: Estimates of tenure-track assistant professor positions held by women range from 29% to 36%.
Regardless of gender, relatively few students publish papers in their first year of graduate school; only 22% of the 303 students who responded to the study survey had, and most who did were middle authors. Publishing as a middle author typically doesn’t hold as much weight as being the first author does, but because middle authorships generally require far less time and energy than a first-author paper, they can be an efficient way to build one’s publication record. But the gender difference observed in the study suggests that, despite women’s efforts, they don’t seem to be getting access to the payoff of publishing early as a middle author as readily as men do, says lead author David Feldon, an associate professor of instructional technology and learning sciences and the director of graduate program assessment and development at Utah State University in Logan.
The looming question is why there’s a publication gap that goes opposite to what one might expect based on the hours worked. Lack of confidence among female students, which is commonly cited as a factor contributing to the underrepresentation of women in science, did not appear to play a role for the female students at the 53 institutions involved in the study. The source may lie in the lab dynamics, Feldon suggests: The interactions in the labs among graduate students and between faculty members and graduate students may favor men to get better yields for their time spent.
Previous studies offer a number of further possible explanations: Women fear backlash when they speak up for themselves, they receive lower quality mentoring, or advisers overvalue work done by men. Or perhaps male students are more likely than their female counterparts to do the kind of work that is most likely to lead to authorship. Investigating what the students are doing in the lab and the underlying connections between lab work, gender, and authorship are important next steps, says Jane Stout, director of the Center for Evaluating the Research Pipeline at the Computing Research Association in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of the reasons for the disparity, the data suggest that the disconnect between representation of women at the graduate level and the faculty level may be starting in the lab, Stout says. Moreover, the results highlight how men and women are diverging in their preparedness for faculty roles very early in their careers, says Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City. Advisers could consider examining the publication rates of their male and female students and try to erase any difference, Valian says. Stout proposes that advisers could also re-evaluate how they allocate tasks and assign authorship and see whether they might be inadvertently benefiting some groups over others. “Maybe they aren’t,” she says, but “it is worth a self-assessment.”