Science's gender gap persists online as male researchers dominate mentions

By Leah Sherwood, The Science Advisory Board assistant editor

September 21, 2021 -- Research performed by female scholars is mentioned less frequently online than that of male scientists, a phenomenon that occurs across all areas of science, according to a large-scale study published on September 20 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

This gender gap in online visibility might have detrimental effects on citations and awards, even in the offline world, according to the authors, led by Emoke-Agnes Horvat, PhD, a professor at the school of communication at Northwestern University.

There are wide-ranging gender inequities in science, encompassing disparities in earnings, support, and promotions. Female scientists receive less credit via citations than men and are less likely to receive prestigious awards such as the Nobel Prize.

The new study demonstrates that this gender gap extends to the online realm as well, with women finding less success than men getting their work mentioned in online news, blogs, and social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.

The analysis -- performed by researchers at the University of Warwick, Northwestern University, and Indiana University, Bloomington -- scrutinized the online visibility of 537,486 scientists during 2012 through Altmetric, a website that tracks where published research is mentioned online.

To supplement the 2012 Altmetric data, the researchers added data from two other sources: Open Academic Graph (OAG), which tracks co-authorship; and the Web of Science (WOS), which tracks citations. These three databases were connected by means of the unique digital object identifier of each research article that was tracked.

The researchers used publication history data from the OAG for the period 2007 to 2012 to build a co-authorship network for each scholar. To keep the focus on individual visibility, they restricted the analysis to articles with 10 or fewer authors.

The OAG data were used not only to track scholars' collaborations but also to quantify their previous productivity and success, including each scholar's h index (a metric for evaluating the cumulative impact of an author's output and performance).

The authors used the WOS data to categorize the scholars' broad research areas (physics, astronomy, psychology, and 10 other fields), as well the scientific subfields of articles (e.g., clinical neurology, mechanical engineering, or nuclear physics). A given scientist could belong to multiple research areas as long as he or she had published in at least one of its subfields.

When the authors examined the gender composition of the scholars whose work was tracked in Altmetric in 2012, they found that across all research areas, among researchers whose work was mentioned online, only 28.6% of scholars were women, a low number relative to their output.

The specific percentages varied considerably by broad research area. Only 16% to 17% of scholars in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and engineering whose work was mentioned online were women. The number rose to 47% in psychology, which while being higher than in other fields, is still low considering that 53% of the psychologists tracked by Altmetric in 2017 were women.

Men tend to benefit disproportionately from online dissemination, even in research areas such as psychology, where women are well represented.

"This happens not only in, say, chemistry or engineering," Horvat said in a statement. "It's not something that pertains to research areas with traditionally low female representation. It is a general phenomenon."

The authors also estimated how successful women were in reaching the highest levels of online presence by dividing the researchers in their database into four "online success" categories: the top 25%, the top 15%, the top 5%, and the top 1% based on the total mentions of all articles they authored in 2012. They analyzed these levels by 13 different scientific disciplines.

Horvat and her team found that the higher the online success category was, the more severe the underrepresentation of women was too. Women were more underrepresented in the top 1% than in the top 25% in every academic field except astronomy.

"Barriers to resources, publication, and high-profile speaking engagements are historically engrained and hard to break, but the online space could be more equitable," Horvat said. "And yet, what we see is there is still a strong gender imbalance. This insight is novel and deserves attention precisely because it is easy to assume that at least online, female scholars do as well as male scholars."

The reasons for the gender gap in online dissemination remain unclear but could be the result of biased perceptions that women's research is "not as important" or "impactful" as research done by men. In addition, previous research has found that women may not self-promote at the same rate and intensity as their male counterparts, perhaps due to fear of backlash.

Also, since online mentions of scientific articles are mainly done by colleagues and fellow academics, scholarly activity online is, to some extent, an extension of scientists' offline network, where women are known to face barriers.

"The social media usage patterns uncovered here indicate that the online visibility of female scholars is unlikely to establish gender equity in science on its own," the authors concluded. "However, it can be a powerful piece in a larger strategy to challenge the bias in [the] visibility of women and underrepresented minorities in science."

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