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Women scientists lag in academic publishing, and it matters

Women are less likely to be published in scientific journals. Shutterstock

Women make up less than 30% of the people working in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) jobs worldwide. The gender imbalance is changing, but men still dominate in academic publishing. This has consequences for women’s careers and for research itself.

A number of initiatives aim to promote the participation of women in STEM. UNESCO, for example, has a prominent gender advancement project. Efforts like these have led to a rapid rise in the number of women studying in these fields. In the UK, the US and South Africa, the number of men and women enrolling for postgraduate research is close to parity.

Despite these advances, women continue to occupy subordinate positions in the realm of scientific publishing.

Where the imbalance shows

Firstly, women are less likely than men to be published in scientific journals. Recent findings at a South African university show women have a lower research output than men. This supports my own findings in the field of medicinal plants, natural products and biotechnology.

According to my calculations, women participated in only 33% of the papers published in the top tier journals in the field. This is disproportionate to the growing number of women who are obtaining postgraduate qualifications in this field.

Secondly, there are fewer female than male scholars who publish in high impact journals as first authors or as the lead principal investigators globally. This suggests that the technical expertise of women scientists is being used to generate data, but they are not setting the research agenda.

Research also shows us that women’s papers are less likely to be cited than those of their male counterparts. Men are also more likely to cite themselves than female researchers. Citations are increasingly used as a measure of scholarly output and influence. And for South African scientists, this often influences how researchers are rated by the National Research Foundation.

The gender imbalance is also reflected in far fewer women than men serving on journal boards and participating in the peer-review process globally.


All of these issues influence scientific profiles. An academic’s career development depends on being visible to peers. Academic publishing influences job prospects and promotion. So when women are under represented in scholarly articles, it could slow their progress up the academic ladder.

A South African study showed that gender based publication productivity was correlated to women generally having lower qualification levels and lower hierarchical positions in South African academia.

This has consequences for individual women as well as for the field more broadly.

Gendered innovation is research and development that takes sex and gender into consideration. It can produce better and safer research and technological results. Based on their experiences, women can draw attention to facts and ideas that the male perspective may miss. But mere participation is not enough. Women need to be leaders and authorities if they are to direct research.

The way forward

In South Africa, the Department of Science and Technology has tried to enable more women to follow STEM careers.

One of its initiatives is the South African PhD Project, which has resulted in a steady increase in the number of women graduating in these fields.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor also supported the establishment of 42 research chairs led by female academics in 2014. This sent a strong message about women in academic leadership in South Africa.

Acknowledging and discussing the gender equality challenge is the first step to a positive solution. But more is needed to mentor, support and promote women at universities and research institutions.

Three changes can make a difference. One is better representation on the editorial boards of journals. Another is gender neutral citations.

The third is more research to reveal the full extent of the bias and its causes. That will show the route towards parity.

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