Story at a glance

  • Women are underrepresented and underpaid in STEM research fields in comparison to their male colleagues.
  • A new study says male researchers are more likely to present their findings positively in titles and abstracts than female researchers.
  • Findings presented more positively are more likely to be cited in later research, the study also found.

Women are often expected to be modest. But what is framed as a desirable trait in women also puts them at a considerable disadvantage. Not only do they tend to underestimate their abilities, but a new study finds they also present their work less positively. 

We already know the consequences: Women are underrepresented in medical and life science faculties, earn lower salaries and receive fewer research grants than their male peers. They're also less frequently cited in other research, and a study by researchers from the Universities of Mannheim, Yale and Harvard says it’s related to how they talk about their work. Findings presented positively in titles and abstracts are associated with 9.4 percent of higher subsequent citations in all clinical journals and 13 percent of citations in high impact clinical journals, the study found. 

What are the magic words? The study said "novel," "unique" and "unprecedented" were some of the terms used to describe research positively. In research by teams with male lead authors, the word "novel" was used 43 percent more often than in teams with female lead authors — who were 29 percent more likely to use the word "supportive." 

And this matters. “Compared with salary negotiations or hiring and promotion decisions, opportunities for self promotion occur more often and depend largely on the discretion of the individual,” the study said. “Although science is increasingly produced by teams, perceptions of individual performance continue to be important determinants of career progress. Self promotion may therefore be critical to drawing attention to one’s abilities and to pursuing careers more forcefully.”

There are other factors, too. The study cites one by Erin Hengel, an assistant professor at the University of Liverpool with a PhD in Economics, that found female researchers are often held to higher standards. 

“To the best of my knowledge, I am the first to suggest and document empirical evidence that women are held to higher standards in the peer-review process,” Hengel said in the study, a phrasing she tells Changing America wasn’t natural to her. 

“I think in the earliest version of the paper I did not have that, and I actually received feedback to include it,” she said. “I pushed really hard not to do that, I felt really uncomfortable with it.”

Hengel’s study, which looks at another side of gender differences in STEM research, found that women spend more time in the peer review process and eliminate more “hard words.” These can be words with three or more syllables or vocabulary higher than a fourth-grade level. 

“There’s quite a bit of evidence that also suggests that women may be punished more for mistakes,” Hengel said. 

And that makes it more difficult to determine what to do next. 

“I wouldn’t conclude from this that women should just go in and write ‘novel’ everywhere,” she said. “But it is an interesting finding.”

Published on Dec 17, 2019