Women are closing the participation gap in science, but slowly

In computer science and physics, it may take more than 100 years to see men and women participating equally

The difference between the numbers of men and women in many STEM fields has shrunk. But it could still take decades or even centuries in some disciplines to close the gender gap.

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A female computer scientist today might feel outnumbered. And she would be right: There are more than five times as many men as women in that field, according to a new study. Unfortunately, her counterpart living in the next century may feel the same. And in the century after that. In fact, it might take a whopping 280 years before men and women are equally represented in computer-science research, the study suggests.

Scientists from the University of Melbourne in Australia compared the overall numbers of men and women working in science. They looked at gender gaps in several fields in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine. Together, these are referred to as the STEMM fields. The researchers analyzed how large the differences in participation were between men and women. And they wanted to know whether — and how quickly — those gaps might disappear.

People have known about gender gaps in STEMM fields for a long time. Many programs have worked to increase the number of girls and women in science. Clubs and girls-only competitions encourage girls to pursue STEMM training. Women STEMM professionals may find support in mentoring networks. Such efforts have helped. The gap has gotten smaller in recent years — but only in some fields. That may lead people to think science is now on a path toward equality between the genders.

In fact, there’s still a long way to go, the data show. That’s especially true for for women in computer science, physics, math and surgery. At current rates of change, the researchers say, none of those gaps are likely to close for at least five decades. They reported their findings online April 19 in PLOS Biology.

How they found this out

The researchers started by estimating how many men and women work in a large range of fields.  To do this, they searched databases of articles that scientists wrote to report their research findings.

More than 10 million academic papers in STEMM fields were published between 2002 and 2016. The number of women authoring research papers is a good predictor of the number of women working in each field, the team notes. So using a computer program, they counted how many men and women had been listed on those papers as authors. (The researchers did not count names that could belong to either men or women, such as Chris or Robin. Such names were a small percentage of the data. So they didn’t affect the analysis much.)

In the end, the researchers noted the gender for more than 36 million scientists. They were working in any of more than 100 different countries. From these data, they estimated the ratio of men and women in each field in 2016. Then they calculated how much those ratios have changed since 2002. They also computed how long it would take, if those rates of change continued, for women to finally represent half the authors in each field.

In 87 of the 115 STEMM fields analyzed, male authors significantly outnumber females. Women exceeded men in only five fields. These included nursing, speech pathology and midwifery. (A midwife is someone trained to assist women during childbirth.) Physics, mathematics and surgery had among the fewest women authors. And some of the most male-dominated fields are changing most slowly.

Based on these calculations, for instance, it would take about 131 years to close the gender gap in astrophysics. Math? That would take about 60 years.

For many health-related disciplines, the wait could be shorter. Women might close the gap in environmental health within 16 years, the study found. Public health already has roughly equal numbers of men and women.

The authors recommend stronger efforts to keep girls and women interested in STEMM fields. That might include fighting incorrect beliefs about gender-based differences in ability and providing better access to time off for parents with babies and young children. Closing the gender gap more quickly may take new kinds of strategies, they say.


When will the gender gap in science be closed?

This graph shows how many years it will take for the gender gap to disappear in certain select fields, according to the new study. The estimates are based on the overall numbers of men and women authoring scientific papers. In public health, the gap has closed. Men outnumber women in most other disciplines. In just two fields, midwifery and nursing (asterisks), do women dominate in authoring papers.

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Graphic: SN Staff; Data: L. Holman et al/PLOS Biology 2018

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