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Expert opinion from academics at the UCL Institute of Education


Women publish less than men in the social sciences. Or do they…?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 22 August 2012

Karen Schucan Bird
We in higher education all know how important it is to publish our research. Recognition and reward are granted to productive scholars and their universities. But is there equal opportunity for all to succeed? With growing evidence from the material and life sciences that women publish less than men, I wondered whether other female social scientists and I were publishing less than we would expect. I sought to investigate.
To do so, I compared two sets of data: 1) demographic data of UK academics (pdf) to identify the proportion of social scientists that were women (in 2003/4, this was 40%), and 2) a random sample of 202 journal articles published at a similar time, so that I could identify the proportion of articles authored by UK-based women. The logic that drove my analysis was simple: if 40% of social scientists were women, then we could expect that 40% of publications would be written by women.
I analysed the social sciences as a whole as well as focusing on particular disciplines: political science, economics, social policy and psychology. Traditionally, these disciplines  are gendered subject areas. Economics, for example, has tended to represent a “harder”, masculine area of social science, with high proportions of male academics and students. In contrast, social policy is traditionally considered a feminine field,  with high levels of female scholars and students.
My findings
Across the social sciences as a whole, women did not publish as many articles as we might expect. Whilst representing 40% of the social science community, women only contributed 32% of the sampled articles. A similar discrepancy was found in the more “masculine” disciplines. Whilst women made up 24% of political scientists in the UK, they only contributed 8% of the articles sampled. In economics, women constituted 22% of academics whilst writing 13% of the sampled articles. This latter finding, however, was not statistically significant (whilst the other reported findings were).
There were more optimistic findings elsewhere. In the “feminine” disciplines of social science, women’s publishing levels were proportionate to their representation in the field. In psychology, women constituted 43% of the discipline and wrote 43% of the sampled articles. Similarly, women made up 46% of social policy academics in the UK and contributed 53% of the articles sampled. In these disciplines it seems that women were able to publish at a level comparable to their male peers.
So, it seems, there were differences in men and women’s publication productivity. With the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) looming over us, I can’t help but feel troubled by some of my findings. In the last quality assurance process (The Research Assessment Exercise, 2008), men were almost 40% more likely than their female colleagues (pdf) to be entered. If women are publishing less than men then a similar outcome may be repeated in 2014. How can we explain this and what does this say about the academy?
I speculate about three possible explanations:

  • Women’s research is not sufficiently recognised or valued by our universities or the academy. Understandings of “knowledge’’ and “scientific quality” privilege traditional, more “masculine” approaches to research that are more commonly undertaken by men. Particular disciplines such as social policy and psychology may provide a space in which alternative research approaches are accepted, valued and published.
  • Female academics may take on a greater proportion of the teaching and administrative roles within the academy. Thus, they have less time to dedicate to research and its publication than their male colleagues.
  • Women are actively seeking new opportunities to undertake research and dissemination activities that do not involve publishing in the standard ways. Perhaps journals and other conventional outlets for research are being replaced by new media (such as blogs) and alternative platforms.

Publishing is absolutely central to the academic world. If women are not publishing at a level comparable with their male peers, for whatever reason, then surely they are at a career disadvantage? I urge us all to watch and see whether our male and female colleagues fare differently in the forthcoming REF.
For more details see, “Do women publish fewer journal articles than men? Sex differences in publication productivity in the social sciences” Schucan Bird, K. Nov-2011 In : British Journal of Sociology of Education. 32, 6, p. 921-937.

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