Gender gaps in science continue to exist, and a pair of recent studies highlights yet another set of differences between female and male researchers.
One study suggests that the concept of “brilliance” in science might discourage some women from following certain career paths or education opportunities. Another found that women are more likely than men to offer “honorary authorships” to scientists who may not or do not deserve it—a courtesy that might obscure the magnitude of their own contributions.
As part of a study published online 9 January in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology , researchers tested the interest of nearly 200 undergraduates in hypothetical internships and possible study majors. Consistently, women were less keen about the possibilities when the descriptions emphasized the importance of brilliance by using terms like “intellectual firecracker” and “sharp, penetrating mind.” But when descriptions of the same options used language such as “great focus and determination”—words that highlighted the importance of hard work and dedication—the interest from women grew significantly.
Conversely, men were more interested in descriptions that emphasized intelligence over effort. It’s a gender difference that could have real consequences for students and researchers, says Lin Bian, a psychologist at Stanford University in California and the lead author of the paper. “Women are not motivated to pursue fields or jobs that are perceived as requiring intellectual talent or brilliance,” she says. She believes that more women would gravitate toward a field if more scientists acknowledged other keys to success in it, including hard work. “It’s important to de-emphasize the role of brilliance in achieving success,” she says.
In a second study, published 6 December 2017 in PLoS One, researchers at the University of Alabama in Hunstville looked at survey responses from more than 12,000 US scholars from a wide range of disciplines. Overall, 35.5% of all respondents reported giving “honorary authorships” to researchers who contributed very little to the paper. The practice was most common in the health-care field and least common in the social sciences. The gender differences were even more pronounced: women were 38% more likely than men to have felt obligated to giving honorary authorships. The authors speculate that “female researchers may be less able to resist pressure to add honorary authors because women are underrepresented in faculty leadership and administrative positions in academia and lack political power.”
The authors had expected that women would also be more likely than men to feel coerced by a journal to add citations simply to enhance the journal’s impact, but that’s not what they found. In this sample, men were 18% more likely than women to be coerced.
Gender differences aren’t always predictable, but they keep showing up just about everywhere researchers look.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.