When we talk about barriers women in STEM face, the focus is often on gender pay disparities or instances of outright sexism.
But there’s a steadily-mounting pile of evidence suggesting there’s another, subtle barrier that could be hindering the career development of female scientists.
In December, researchers published a study suggesting male scientists are more likely to describe their research as “unprecedented” and “inventive” when compared to females.
This positive framing of research may be causing women-led studies to be overlooked: researchers noted papers that were positively-described were associated with higher rates of subsequent citations and references from other researchers.
Now, there’s a new study bolstering the claim that words — or a lack of them — could be hindering women.
The paper, published April 1 in PLOS One, suggests female academics are less likely than men to comment on published research, limiting scholarly debate.
“Gendered patterns in academic commenting could impede scholarly exchange between men and women and further marginalize women within the scientific community,” says Cary Wu, a sociology professor at Toronto’s York University and the study’s lead author.
“And gender inequality is still deeply felt, despite the welcoming atmosphere today for women in academia.”
Along with professors Sylvia Fuller (University of British Columbia); Zhilei Shi (Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Beijing, China); and Rima Wilkes (University of British Columbia), Wu reviewed comments in the journals Science and Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America over a 16-year period.
In addition to women commenting less overall, researchers noted women were less likely to engage with research led by men.
“If left unaddressed, these patterns in academic commenting could impede scholarly exchange between men and women and further marginalize women within the scientific community,” reads an excerpt from the study.
‘When women are excluded, the academic community is deprived’
A lower rate of commenting means a lower rate of participation in high-impact scholarly debates, opportunities that can lead to a deeper understanding of research and establish commenters as an authority.
“When women experts are excluded, the academic community as a whole is deprived of fresh ideas and diverse opinions,” reads the paper.
The authors suggest journals encourage more scholarly exchange between men and women and specifically invite women to write more comments, particularly on research authored by men.