How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

The Lack of Female Researcher Thought Leaders

There isn’t one, if a new JAMA study featured last month in STAT is an indication. There’s simply a lack of opportunity for these women to publish their opinion content, as compared with equally qualified male counterparts.

The study, on gender disparities in authorship of invited commentaries in medical journals, is the foundation for a stunning opinion piecein STAT by Emma Thomas, a doctoral student in biostatistics at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health.

Thomas and co-author Francesca Dominici looked at 70,000 articles from about 2,500 journals — and found that women in that dataset of authors “were about 20 percent less likely to author invited commentaries than men who had worked in the same field of health research for the same length of time, accumulating the same numbers of publications and citations — all key measures of scientific achievement.”

Invited commentaries are just that: an invitation by a journal for an expert author to give their expert perspective on newly published, important research. The invitation to write them is, as Thomas puts it, “a recognition of expertise and provides high-profile exposure to the author.”

You would think that the opportunity gap for invited commentaries would close as the men and women become senior researchers. You would be very wrong — in fact, it gets wider. As Thomas writes: “the most experienced female scientists in our dataset were about 40 percent less likely to author an invited commentary than their male peers.” That the opportunity gap increases as researchers age makes sense if patriarchy is the cause, since patriarchy (like rust) never sleeps. Its advantages accrue steadily and inexorably over time.

In the STAT opinion, Thomas admits that she had never felt herself a victim of patriarchy throughout her career. But as she heard another female researcher speak about being a victim of systematic gender discrimination at last year’s Women in Statistics and Data Science Conference, patriarchy coalesced for her as the only explanation for what her paper’s data were showing. (Hence the title of her STAT piece: “I thought patriarchy in science was fading. Then I saw it in the data.

Let’s take invited commentaries as proxies for all invited opinion content by researchers — in elite media as well as peer-reviewed journals. I think we can safely assume that many of the factors that bring potential invited commentary authors to prominence are also those that elevate researchers as potential opinion writers — social and professional networks, the disparity in men vs. women in senior research positions, men as editorial gatekeepers, what Thomas calls the entire “social-scientific process.” That process creates friction for women to advance in recognition as it removes friction for men.

Unlike Thomas, I don’t have hard numbers. I do see this disparity every day in my reading, my listening and watching, my correspondence: female researchers are — still — substantially to wildly outnumbered by males in (excluding Twitter) publishing opinion content. That disparity could be down to the limitations of my reading, and one project for my new VA is to add up the male/female numbers for a range of publications. But it’s clear to me that, while some opinion content outlets that publish researchers (e.g., The Atlantic) are making an effort to redress the balance, too many (e.g., Project Syndicate) still just don’t seem to care.

Thomas’s piece ends with a call for those in positions of privilege to take more responsibility to increase the diversity of not just who they publish, but who they know and work with. One way I’m responding to this call: being committed to having a guest list for my forthcoming podcast that’s predominantly women.

Those who lead research-driven organizations, though, have a huge need to create programs that intentionally create opportunities for their female researchers to translate their expertise into authority content. I’m chilled by this passage in Thomas’s STAT piece on the widening commentary opportunity gap between male and female senior researchers:

“One explanation is that authors who have been invited to contribute invited commentaries are more likely to receive future invitations, allowing the advantage afforded to junior men to increase across their careers. Greater vigilance against inflicting gender bias on young researchers is needed to prevent small gaps from ballooning into large ones.”

Toward a solution, I’m excited by something Thomas as a data scientist brings up in her piece: her study “used text mining of published abstracts to identify thousands of women with expertise on invited commentary topics, even though they were underrepresented as commentary authors. This result, while dispiriting, shows the potential of data science to unearth underutilized talent.”

Imagine having a database of expertise based on such natural language processing, one that objectively ranked expertise on different potential opinion topics for male and female researchers. True, you wouldn’t yet know if they could write for non-specialists, or think on their feet in an podcast interview, or make a strong argument from a clear POV in a talk. But you would know whether your organization was affording equal opportunity to researchers of equal expertise to create such content. You could also use such a database to point an editor or content gatekeeper to staff researchers they ordinarily wouldn’t have considered for assignments.

We have to have good intentions, and then we have to do and have more. As Thomas argues: the imbalance won’t redress itself.