Let’s face it: engineering fields and science in general have a very big gender problem. Men seem to dominate in these fields, and despite all of our efforts to get young women involved in STEM related careers, female STEM students are losing interest in these fields and ditching those opportunities for something different. This only perpetuates the pattern of gender inequality in STEM fields, leaving more young women without the recognition they deserve.
That recognition element may be a big factor in determining if women stay in STEM fields. For instance, a recent study of nearly 1 million engineering paper co-authorships puts hard numbers on the problem in this male-dominated scientific field and shows a paradoxical trend: Female engineers are publishing in slightly more prestigious journals on average than their male colleagues, but their work is getting less attention. How do we help women with this “recognition gap” in a field that is already dominated by men and their accomplishments?
Gita Ghiasi is wrapping up an engineering Ph.D. at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and is the lead author for a new study of gender inequality in engineering papers. According to ScienceMag, the researchers bought the data from Web of Science, the massive database of scholarly publications maintained by Thomson Reuters. Filtering for engineering journals published between 2008 and 2013, the team investigated 679,338 articles with nearly 1 million co-authors.
Some more data crunching revealed shocking results: Women made up just 20% of the authors on the engineering papers, compared with about 30% across all scientific disciplines. But there is also a bit of good news: Engineering papers with a woman as lead author were published in more prestigious journals, on average, than male-led studies. But in spite of publishing in more prestigious titles, women’s papers were cited about 3% less frequently.
Those differences are tiny—which is part of the good news—but with hundreds of thousands of data points, they can’t be waved away as a statistical fluke. The study is “very important because of the large sample size,” says Joyce Benenson, a psychologist at Emerson College in Boston who found a similar pattern of gender bias in scientific collaboration. Her own research echoes the patterns of collaboration that Ghiasi’s team found within different areas of engineering.
“When there are fewer individuals in a field, women play more central roles,” she says. But overall, she is happy to see that the gender difference in prestige and citation is small. “Women are consistently doing really well in engineering across many subfields. It’s really a nice finding, and very positive.”
Katy Huff, a nuclear engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “I definitely collaborate as much as possible. I find better science results from the constant feedback among peers inherent in collaborations.” She acknowledges that the engineering workplace poses an extra hurdle. But she’s not convinced that the problem can be solved by engineers themselves. “Societal norms at large, not only the societal norms of the engineering research workplace, must change.”
Across the STEM fields, there are gender disparities in tenured faculty positions, publication rates, and patents awarded. Like Huff says, societal norms need to change so that women in these prestigious careers can gain the recognition they deserve. If you know a female coworker in a STEM-related field, take the time to let her know just how much you appreciate her contributions to the field. They deserve to feel appreciated every once in a while!
Photo credit: Idaho National Library/Flickr via Science