Diverse STEM Teams ‘Do’ Better Science — Yet Only 30% of Scientists Are Women, Study Finds



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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger
May 18, 2024 at 10:22AM UTC

It's no surprise that, regardless of the industry, diversity is good for business. Despite that common knowledge, however, women only make up 30 percent of scientists.

With almost four decades of research published between 1980 and 2016 in the fields of biomedical research, clinical medicine and public health, a team of North American researchers came to a simple finding: Diverse science teams produce both more rigorous and effective science, especially when it comes to reporting sex-based differences in subjects. While sex-related reporting is generally increasing across publications, papers that boast female first and last authors are more likely to cover sex-based differences, which allows for robust replication in science and is particularly critical when translating findings from pre-clinical to applied health settings.

Still, however, researchers are grappling with the aforementioned discrepancy with regards to the underrepresentation of female scientists. Despite a number of proposed diversity policies and action plans, the efforts of the top 15 global universities for social sciences and public health in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom still beget a number of gender disparities. While women outnumber men at junior levels, that representation declines each level up the academic hierarchy, especially for ethnic-minority women.

Likewise,  more expansive initiatives such as the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE and the Athena Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN)  continue to advocate for gender diversity and inclusion across the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. But international research suggests that it's difficult to attribute any tangible progress to their efforts alone. Moreover, few men are involved in such initiatives, though research suggests time and time again that, in order to achieve systematic, sustainable equality among the genders, all genders must work together. Otherwise, women bear the burden of fighting inequality alone, which consumes ever more time and energy they could expend elsewhere — such as in their STEM careers.

The Lancet recently published its #LancetWomen report, a 118-page issue with over 300 submissions from more than 40 countries, that unpacks everything from implicit bias to the best practices to address gender inequality. The report offers peer-reviewed evidence for the institutional and systemic barriers that continue to impact (and, frankly, stall) women’s progress in science, medicine and global health.

Here are three actionable ways companies can do a better job of tackling the gender imbalance in STEM and finding, recruiting and promoting female talent within their organizations, according to the #LancetWomen report.

1. Celebrate female scientists' achievements (not their gender).

Maryam Zaringhalam, who sits on the 500 Women Scientists’ leadership board, told Massive Science that The Lancet's 2019 findings "confirm our suspicions" and mean that the scientific community can be making greater strides toward gender equality, emphasizing visibility. Too often, she says, women scientists are "celebrated for being women, and not [for] the achievements they’ve made." 
In 2018, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), for example, published an interview featuring four female pioneers who've become the first female heads of their respective institutes, celebrating their accomplishments. The organization also boasts an album 

2. Give female scientists the credit they deserve.

Women, in general, seldom take the credit they deserve. In a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Michelle C. Haynes and Madeline E. Heilman found that women are unlikely to take credit for their role in group work in mixed-gender settings — unless their roles are explicitly clear. The same can't be said for women who work among other women, however. And this can largely be attributed to the "impostor syndrome," or the concept of internalizing accomplishments due to the fear of being exposed as a "fraud." 
When fewer STEM successes by women are recognized, however, fewer women in STEM advance — and fewer women are enticed to pursue careers in STEM. The scientific community can make more conscious efforts to credit women and acknowledge their achievements, however, to combat the impostor syndrome that plagues the industry.

3. Encourage women to study STEM.

The women who do go into STEM are more likely than men to leave their careers for jobs in other industries, according to Catalyst data. Specifically, 53 percent of women (compared to 31 percent of men) who start out in business roles in tech-intensive industries leave for other industries, reportedly because of isolation, hostile male-dominated work environments, ineffective executive feedback and a lack of effective sponsors, the research suggests. But if more women worked in STEM, women would have female peers, leaders and sponsors, which would, in theory, lead to better retention rates.
So how does the STEM industry attract more women to STEM in the first place?  One surefire way to find more female talent for STEM jobs is to get more female students interested in and excited about studying STEM. To date, only 27 percent of all students taking the AP Computer Science exam in the United States are female, and just 18 percent of American computer-science college degrees go to women.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.

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