WEDNESDAY, July 19, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Women still lag behind men in the field of scientific research, particularly in getting their work published in prestigious publications.
That's the finding of new research that shows while a greater number of women have become medical researchers over the last four decades, their studies are still much less likely to see the light of day in major medical journals.
"Women have come a very long way, but there's still a very long road ahead," concluded study author Dr. Reshma Jagsi, who conducted the research while at the Office of Women's Careers at Massachusetts General Hospital.
"The percentage of first authors who are women has gone up from 6 percent in 1970 to almost 30 percent in 2004, and that's quite an accomplishment," added Jagsi, who is now at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "But that's still not parity [with men], and that's what we all hope will someday be the case."
Her team's findings are reported in the July 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The issue of sexism within medicine and other sciences resurfaced early last year when then-Harvard University president Larry Summers gave a speech suggesting that women were somehow less well-equipped for the sciences than their male peers.
Just last week, in a rebuttal to Summer's remarks, transgendered Stanford University neuroscientist Ben Barres penned an essay in Nature, in which he said his career path got noticeably easier when he switched his sex from female to male.
In this latest study on the issue, Jagsi's team looked at articles published in the years 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2004 in six major U.S. medical journals: the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Annals of Surgery, Obstetrics & Gynecology, and the Journal of Pediatrics.
Her group focused specifically on the two most prestigious names heading any given study: the "first" or "lead" researcher (always listed first in the list of authors), and the "senior" researcher (listed last, often a senior faculty member).
Jagsi's team found that the percentage of clearly female names listed as first study author rose from a paltry 5.9 percent overall in 1970, to 29.3 percent by 2004. The share of senior authors who were female also rose, from 3.7 percent in 1970 to 19.3 percent in 2004.
The team also looked at the names of experts who were asked to write guest editorials in the NEJM or JAMA over the past few decades.
Again, they found that the number of female commentators rose from zero (in JAMA) and 1.5 percent (in NEJM) in 1970 to between 18 percent and 20 percent by 2004.
According to Jagsi, these increases in numbers reflect the rising participation of women in medicine, generally. Recent data show that women hold one third of the faculty positions at American medical schools. However, the data also shows that only 10 percent of female faculty members have full, tenured professorships, compared to 28 percent of male faculty members.
Frequent publication in prestigious journals can make or break a researcher's career, Jagsi said. That's why increasing the profile of women in medical journals is key to bringing true equality to the profession.
However, research is time-consuming and typically peaks in the 30s and 40s, she added. That's also the point in many women's lives where they face the dilemma of choosing between children or career.
"That means that women [researchers] are most likely facing barriers even before they get to the point of submitting an article to a journal, or they are not taking those key senior or first-author roles," said Jagsi.
She believes that specific interventions on the part of medical schools -- such as increasing mentorship for young female researchers and finding creative ways to help free up their time -- would go a long way to boosting their publication rates.
"There's already quite an effort going on across the country at different medical centers to try and address those issues," noted Dr. Mary Beth Hamel, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard and the co-author of a related NEJM editorial.
Hamel is also deputy editor at NEJM. She said the journal doesn't track the gender of authors it publishes, and study selection is made solely on the merits and importance of the science.
However, there's more leeway in the journal's selection of guest editorialists, Hamel added.
"We really just try and find the best people we can to write the commentary articles -- we don't intentionally try and find women," she said. "But I think the numbers that this study found does suggest that it might be helpful to make more of an effort to find highly qualified women."
Both Hamel and Jagsi believe that practical constraints -- many related to the tension between childrearing and careers -- are probably the prime culprit driving women's lack of parity in terms of publication.
But Marianne LaFrance, a Yale University specialist on gender and sexuality issues, said gender bias can and probably does influence the selection process. As far back as 1968, she said, psychologists conducted studies where they found that simply attributing the authorship of an essay or other work to a woman triggered a decline in the reviewer's estimation of its artistic or academic worth.
In the sciences, especially, "the data is really clear that, all else being equal, people think males are better -- that they're smarter, have more creative intelligence, more core ability," LaFrance said.
To help eliminate bias, many journals "blind" reviewers from knowing the study authors' names during the selection process, but LaFrance said study details often make it clear who an author might be.
She also believes that women are socialized to be more cautious about their research output than men. "They tend to get second-guessed a lot, and they second-guess themselves -- often waiting to submit for publication until they've done just that one extra test of validity," LaFrance said. "That obviously cuts into the sheer quantity of publication that gets out there."
On the other hand, she said, men tend to have a more confident, "go for it" sensibility, probably a result of their socialization as boys.
Still, there's hope that gradual shifts in gender roles could change all that. Jagsi pointed out that as more male American researchers decide that they, too, want to spend more time with their kids, that could end up helping their female peers.
"Because it's becoming more socially acceptable for men to play a bigger role at home, it may well be that the real pressure comes from that side," she said. "And that would be great."
To learn more, go to the Association for Women in Science.