The great research prizes discriminate against women

Women have an increasingly prominent role in scientific research. From 2013 to 2018, the percentage of women workers in this environment rose from 28% to 33% of the total, according to the Unesco report To be smart, the digital revolution will have to be inclusive. Despite these improvements, they are still less likely than men to win an accolade that represents the excellence of their career. An example of this is the Nobel awarded this week, in the categories of medicine, physics and chemistry, in which the seven winners have been men. This gap has been examined in A study published by the magazine Quantitative Science Studies. The research has analyzed 141 highly prestigious international awards from 2001 to 2020. The results show that, despite the fact that women now obtain more recognition, inequalities still exist. These awards have been received during these years by 2,011 men and 262 women. In addition, 22 of these awards (16% of the total) have not been awarded in these two decades to any researcher. Among them are some that have the names of scientists, such as the Maryam Mirzakhani prize in mathematics (awarded four times since 2001) and the Queen Elizabeth in engineering (received by 14 men since its first edition in 2013).

This analysis has been divided into four intervals, each lasting five years. The recognition categories were biology and life sciences (including medicine), computer science, engineering, mathematics, physics, and social and behavioral sciences (including psychology). In the first five years analyzed (2001-2005), there was female representation in 30% of the 111 awards available at that time. That percentage increased by nine percentage points (39% of 132 awards) in the following period. Between 2011 and 2015, the number improved considerably, until they were represented in half (50% of 137) and, in the last interval, the researchers managed to be present in 65% of 141 recognitions. Lokman I. Meho, an information scientist at the University of Beirut and lead author of the research, highlights that, despite a significant improvement, “the system has to give more recognition to female researchers to be fair to them.”

The author also analyzes whether the increase in female professors in the United States has also led to an increase in the recognition of female researchers. Between 2001 and 2005, research professors represented 17% of the profession and obtained only 6% of 693 individual awards granted in the country. In the last four years of the past decade, female professors came to represent almost a third of researchers, but they were not recognized in the same proportion either, since they represented only 19% of 1,001 awards studied. To achieve balance with their peers, they would have to be represented in nine more points. Achieving this balance in categories such as biology or mathematics would require an even greater number of winners. Only in computer science have the awards for researchers remained stable until 2015 and then they have experienced a large increase.

Capitolina Diaz, Professor of Sociology and former President of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT), argues that such a balance could be achieved between the proportion of researchers and awards achieved, but that it does not believe that scientific culture “is still so democratized as to recognize talent and excellence in women with the same ease as they do. in men”. In the physics category, the awards granted in the United States have achieved this objective in the last five years, but it remains to be seen whether this will be maintained over time.

Situation in Spain

This is not the first time the gender gap has been studied in scientific awards. From AMIT they directed a study in which they analyzed 37 academic and scientific awards from different branches granted in Spain between 2009 and 2014. The results showed an under-representation of researchers in these, being recognized only in 17.63% of the total. In addition, this research reflects on a glass ceiling within the upper echelons, since male overrepresentation increases with the amount of awards. Of the three with the highest economic compensation, they have only been recognized in 7.14% during those years. In addition, this underrepresentation is also, although to a lesser extent, in strictly scientific award juries.

This bias in science can be seen long before. Despite the fact that the number of female scientists has been increasing for years — to now reach 42% of research staff in Spain — not all of them continue as researchers and progress at a slower rate than their peers, according to data provided by the Government in the document Scientists in figures. Unesco offers similar information in the study mentioned above and denounces that, in addition to having shorter and lower paid careers, they tend to receive more modest research grants.

Pilar López Sancho, research professor at the Institute of Materials Science of Madrid-CSIC and co-founder of AMIT, explains that the idea that science “is for men” is very internalized. Even this bias, she points out, is found in the researchers themselves because they show up for fewer promotions and awards, since “until they are very sure that they have a fantastic resume, they don’t show up, while men do it more” .

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The great research prizes discriminate against women

Hank Gilbert