How gender and race affect academic research
Oomen wait ten years in America for a diagnosis of endometriosis, a painful but historically understudied gynecological condition. Some medical devices, such as pulse oximeters, used to detect low oxygen levels, don’t work as well for dark-skinned people. Could these delays and biases reflect biases in academic research? A recent article published in PNAS, an academic journal, noted imbalances in various areas. The study estimates that if researchers over the past 40 years had mirrored the American population, there would have been 29% more articles on public health, 26% more on gender-based violence, 25% more on gynecology and 18% more on mental health.
The authors, Diego Kozlowski, Vincent Larivière, Cassidy Sugimoto and Thema Monroe-White, collected the names of more than 1.5 million American researchers who published articles between 2008 and 2019. Using data on how often Various first and last names appeared in different genders and races, Kozlowski and his colleagues then applied an algorithm to predict, for each researcher, the likelihood of them being male or female and of a given race. . By combining these probabilities with the subject matter of the articles, the authors estimated how many researchers of each race and gender were publishing in a given field.
The authors found that in addition to a general lack of representation of women, blacks, and Latinos in academia, researchers of different races and genders tended to cluster in certain research topics. While white men were most evenly distributed in academia, women, black and Latino scholars tended to study topics that received fewer citations. Women are disproportionately likely to publish in areas related to health and psychology; they remain less likely to publish in mathematics, physics and engineering. (Asian women buck this trend, focusing on chemistry and biomedicine.)
The paper did not explore the extent to which these disparities reflect choice or discrimination. But women and minorities working in high-profile fields tended to have fewer citations than their white male peers. Citations are often used as a measure of a researcher’s influence, which is important for obtaining funding. White applicants are more successful than minorities in applying for grants, and men tend to receive more funding than women. This can lead women and minorities to less prestigious fields. Research could be very different if researchers did too. ■
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