This month, on the blog FiveThirtyEight, Emma Pierson wrote an article entitled ‘In Science, It Matters That Women Come Last’. In this article, Emma takes a unique look at the success of female scientists through the lens of publication counts and authorship orders. Specifically, she examines how many women earned the first and last author positions.
Emma examined this by sifting through a collection of almost a million scientific papers within the database arXiv, primarily directed toward physicists and mathematicians. While she did find that female representation in publications has increased over the last 23 years, that was only the tip of the iceberg. Women are more likely than the average author to be first author on a paper, but are less likely to be last author. (The senior scientist involved in the project, often the principal investigator or PI.) Emma also found that women publish far fewer papers compared to their male counterparts and that men publish double the number of solo papers.
The discrepancy in solo publications really struck me. Double? I was even surprised by the fact that men publish 45% more papers than women do. Although these figures might look different if we were examining a life sciences-heavy database, Emma’s study sheds light on the hard sciences. Her figures are also in line with results from analyses of the database JSTOR, which archives journal articles from a wide range of fields. In JSTOR, it was also found that women published fewer papers and were less likely to be last author. It should be noted that publication records vary significantly from country to country, with the female to male ratio spanning 0.179 (Iran) to 0.754 (Poland) in the countries studied. (Studied by Nature in 2013.)
This is truly an unfortunate finding because, as Emma eloquently explains, “Papers are the coin of academic science, like court victories to lawyers or hits to baseball players. A widely read paper could earn a scientist tenure or a grant. Papers map money, power and professional connections, and that means we can use them to map where female scientists are succeeding and where inequality prevails.”
Although Emma does not address this in her article, these discrepancies extend to writing that is not necessarily scientific or peer-reviewed as well. Ninety percent of Wikipedia writers and editors (dubbed Wikipedians) are men. This means that only 10% of editors are women. Wikipedia, arguably the most widely read source of basic information currently, is essentially written by a single gender. Women have very little voice in this sphere. This is a topic I am curious about, given the few barriers to contribution one experiences as a Wikipedian, particularly compared to the challenges of publishing peer-reviewed, cutting edge research.
Perhaps this lack of confidence extends past the office or lab. Sue Gardner, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, has set a goal to increase the number of female Wikipedians to 25% in 2015. In 2011, she told the New York Times, “This is about wanting to ensure that the encyclopedia is as good as it could be. The difference between Wikipedia and other editorially created products is that Wikipedians are not professionals, they are only asked to bring what they know. Everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb.” In the same article, the NY Times also spoke with Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, an organization that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to public forums. She explained that she observes women lacking confidence to put forth their views. She told the NY Times, “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies.” She explained that OpEd is encouraging women to move “away from oneself — ‘do I know enough, am I bragging?’ — and turn the focus outward, thinking about the value of your knowledge.”
Perhaps there are some common threads between authorship in the scientific world and authorship in public forums such as Wikipedia. This may be particularly true when considering single author papers. It can be daunting to craft and submit an article for which you have no collaborators or colleagues on your team. Someone to check in with and ask, “Does this make sense?” Notably, single authorship for both men and women is on the decline as single author papers currently account for only 10% of total papers. In a Nature Op-Ed from 2007, Mott Greene recounted that, “From the late 1600s until about 1920, the rule was one author per paper: an individual produced an increment of science and obtained a corresponding increment of credit. This symmetry was breached in the 1920s, diminished in the 1950s, and largely abandoned by the 1980s. The lone author has all but disappeared. In most fields outside mathematics, fewer and fewer people know enough to work and write alone. If they could, and could spare the time and effort to do so, their funding agencies and home institutions would not permit it.”
I highly recommend a read through Emma’s article and the links provided throughout. And, if you’ve never edited a Wikipedia article before, go give it a try! It’s actually pretty fun ;)