Missing Voices: The Disparity of Women in Research Authorship

March 24, 2016

Written By: Sarah Ngo

At first glance, the statistics tell us that there has been a rise in the ratio of women to men in US medical schools. Since 2003, the number of women attending medical schools continues to be almost equivalent as that of their male counterpart. However, looking beyond the numbers, considerable gender differences remain prevalent in academic medicine.

As a necessary part of career growth, academic authorship is scholarly work that informs intellectual contributions to research and works to strengthen the reputation of the individual as well as the institution conducting the research. Despite the gender parity in medical school admissions, women are underrepresented among first authorship in high impact medical journals. Does the proportion of women in medical schools make a difference when it comes to leadership roles in academia?  

An observational study conducted by Giovanni Filardo and colleagues examined the representations of women’s first authorship in research published in high impact medical journals from 1994 to 2014. Using a sample of 3860 original research articles published across six different general medical journals, the results indicated an overall increase in first female authorship from 27 % in 1994 to 37% in 2014. However, this was not the case for all journals. The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The BMJ saw a decline in the percentage of women first authors in the later years from 2009 to 2014. Despite the overall increase in the representations of women in first authorship, the percentages remained relatively stable and saw little change in the later years from 2009 to 2014. 

Needless to say, the plateaus and declines of representation among the different journals shows that the gender gap in authorship is still a vital concern. There is no static growth in first authorship by women, but rather differences between journals. This suggests that more research should be done to examine underlying causes and strategies to increase the authorships of women in research.

But why does this matter?

Equalized representations of women in authorship matters for science, patients and public health. There is a need for diversity in research and perspective in order to better shape the future of healthcare and drive healthcare policy and clinical practice guidelines. More women in first authorship will change the future of healthcare research that have the power to influence policies and clinical practice.

Institutions can help to reformulate dominance in the current system by introducing gender equity policies that move beyond gendered ways of thinking and break structural inequalities. It’s about encouraging an understanding of unconscious bias and advocating the enforcement of institutional policies that help to promote gender equity in the workplace. After all, the increase of women’s influence shapes the future of healthcare as a whole. 

Read the full study: Trends and comparison of female first authorship in high impact medical journals: observational study (1994-2014).