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Women Scientists 12 Times Less Likely to Describe Their Findings as Unique or Excellent

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Jan 3, 2020

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Women researchers undersell their work by using less positive words to describe their findings than men use, a study has revealed. This contributes to women researchers receiving less recognition than men, even though the level of accomplishment for both genders is similar.

Published in the British Medical Journal, researchers behind the study found that women were 12 times less likely to use words such as “novel,” “unique,” or “unprecedented,” when describing their research as compared to men.

Using positive language is important because, “when people look at abstracts, they might consciously or unconsciously be impressed by the language that’s used,” Marc Lerchenmueller, a management professor at the University of Mannheim, in Germany, and the lead author of the latest study, told The Atlantic.

Lerchenmueller and his co-authors examined approximately 6.2 million research articles in life sciences published over a 15-year period. Articles that were authored by women — as first and last authors — were 21% less likely to use positive terms to describe findings than those articles with at least one man as the lead author. In research papers, the first author is usually the person who has made the most significant intellectual contribution, and the last one is usually the group leader who may have given significant intellectual inputs and supervised the work.

In addition to this, the researchers also found positive words that were often used in combination, such as, “novel approach,” “unique mechanism,” or “promising result” were used by women less frequently than by men.


Related on The Swaddle:

More Women Are Authoring Medical Research Than Ever Before


“Some of this effect may stem from selection, with the more self-promotional authors having better odds of reaching these senior ranks. But women may also present their research more confidently as they gain seniority,” the researchers write for Harvard Business Review (HBR).

Women underselling their work has many implications: first, women’s work doesn’t get cited as much. Per the current study, articles with positive words receive up to 13% more citations compared to those of similar novelty but with fewer positive words sprinkled in.

Second, women face higher editorial standards. “Their manuscripts are subject to greater scrutiny, spend longer under review and women, in turn, respond by conforming to those standards,” Erin Hengel, an economist at the University of Liverpool, in the U.K., writes for ScienceDaily. “The cost to women of publishing a paper is much higher than it is for men: [Women] authors spend three to six months longer under review.”

Therefore, the style of communication matters not only when papers are up for review but also when it comes to grant proposals and in negotiating pay. The authors of the new study found male researchers ended up receiving favorable scores to grants because their papers communicated their findings more positively. And last, with the wealth of information — for instance, in the life sciences field alone, which has seen 1 million articles per year, or, a fourfold increase since the 1980s, per the HBR article — scientists have become pickier about what to read and what to allocate their time to. Therefore, “self-promotion has almost certainly become more important than ever in capturing scientists’ attention,” the study authors write in HBR.

Although the current study has taken into account the language of papers in life sciences only, it would not be wrong to assume that the gender disparities in self-promotion exist in other fields, as well, resulting in gaps in pay and promotion for women. “So it seems fair to say that women would do well to promote their accomplishments more. But the onus does not reside only with them. Male colleagues also need to encourage women and ensure that they do not get penalized for the self-promotion they do,” the authors write in HBR.

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Written By Anubhuti Matta

Anubhuti Matta is an associate editor with The Swaddle. When not at work, she’s busy pursuing kathak, reading books on and by women in the Middle East or making dresses out of Indian prints.

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