École polytechnique - J.Barande

More female researchers globally, but challenges remain

The latest update on the status of women in science offers some good news. The proportion of female researchers increased across the world from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, according to a 96-page report that uses abstract and citation database Scopus to investigate trends across 2 decades and four continents. But it’s not all rosy. Female researchers remain a minority in all of the places studied, and on average they publish fewer papers than their male counterparts, which can hinder their future career prospects.

Women account for 38% to 49% of researchers in 11 of the 12 countries and regions studied, the report concludes based on Scopus records from 2011 to 2015. Brazil and Portugal have the largest proportion of female researchers at 49%, and Denmark saw the greatest change over time, with a 12 percentage point increase as compared with analysis of data from 1996 to 2000. The countries with the smallest proportions of female researchers—Mexico (38%), Chile (38%), and Japan (an outlier at 20%)—also showed the least improvement over time, with increases of just 4 to 5 percentage points. The other countries and regions included in the report—the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, the European Union, and Australia—all have proportions of female researchers ranging from 40% to 44%. Overall, these trends generally align with those from a 2015 UNESCO report, although the proportions of female researchers reported in that publication—which used data from 2013—are on average about 6 percentage points lower.

The new report also notes a persistent publication productivity gender gap in 11 of the 12 places examined, which widened over time. Again, Japan was the outlier; its female researchers published more than their male counterparts. Miyoko Watanabe, the deputy executive director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the Japan Science and Technology Agency who served as a subject expert for the report, suggests that this result could be due to women working more efficiently. “Japanese men usually work longer hours than women, which is not so surprising, as women also deal with childcare and daily housekeeping, among other tasks,” Watanabe says, as quoted in the report. “To maintain a high productivity, female workers must work in a highly efficient manner; they have less time to accomplish the same tasks.”

The analysis also identified gender differences in collaboration patterns and mobility. The authors found that female researchers are less likely to collaborate internationally (in agreement with previous work on this topic) and less internationally mobile (a question left unanswered in a 2016 paper), and it concluded that more of their work is “highly interdisciplinary.” A final bright spot is that research into gender issues is growing “relatively quickly.”

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