It’s time to close the gender gap in research

By Michela Bello and Cláudia Sarrico

OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

Much progress has been made in the campaign for gender equality, yet women still face significant barriers to advancement in the workplace. This is particularly true for researchers.

New results from the latest OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors (ISSA2) show that women are under-represented in research careers, as they are in many other sectors. On average across OECD countries, women comprise only around 40 percent of all researchers – ranging from 23 percent in Luxembourg to 56 percent in Lithuania – and they are considerably less likely to be in leadership positions. Only 30 percent of corresponding authors are women, according to ISSA2, suggesting that female researchers may have less opportunity to both enter and advance in their fields. The magnitude of this gender gap varies significantly across fields of research. There is near-parity in the social sciences and psychology, where 45 percent of corresponding authors are women, while women account for only 15 percent of corresponding authors in physics and astronomy (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Women scientific authors, by field of research

Percentage of corresponding authors in each field

Source: Bello, M. and F. Galindo-Rueda (2020),

Launched in 2015, ISSA surveys authors who have published in peer-reviewed journals, with the aim of collecting information on their activities and informing science policy. The second and most recent cycle, ISSA2, covered nearly 12 000 researchers across more than 60 countries, and focused on how the digitalisation of science has affected their work. As a voluntary, online survey of only corresponding authors, ISSA2 may not be truly representative of the population of all authors and should be interpreted with caution. Yet the 12 000 responses gathered globally compare favourably with similar online surveys, and the statistical methods used to correct for potential participation biases provide stable and granular insights that are difficult to glean from official surveys – including findings related to gender differences.  

ISSA2 reveals important gender-related differences in how authors use digital tools: women authors appear less likely to seize opportunities brought about by digitalisation, and they are less likely to use advanced tools or share data and code. But ISSA2 also sheds light on broader, more systemic discrepancies that may sound familiar to women working in other fields. 

Women authors earn on average 5 to 6 percent less than their male counterparts.

Women authors, for example, earn on average 5 to 6 percent less than their male counterparts, even after accounting for individual and job-related characteristics. This gap persists even though there is no evidence that women’s research is of lower quality; according to ISSA2, the work of male authors is not more likely to be cited or be published in prestigious journals than that of female authors (see Figure 2). The gender wage gap is particularly wide in engineering and computer sciences (nearly 27 percent), and in senior manager positions (15 percent).  This suggests that women are at a greater disadvantage in certain fields – typically those associated with more prestige and better pay. Women authors also tend to be less mobile than men are. Around 24 percent of male authors live in a country that is different from where they attained their highest degree, compared to only 18 percent of women. Such lack of mobility may hinder progression in their careers.

Figure 2. Estimated differences of research quality and earnings between female and male scientific authors

Least square regression estimates and 95% confidence intervals

Source: Bello and Galindo-Rueda (2020),

As they progress in their careers, women appear to face greater challenges in attaining leadership roles, suggesting that there may be a “leaky pipeline” along their career paths. According to ISSA2, 80 percent of female corresponding authors and 85 percent of male corresponding authors hold a doctorate degree. Yet nearly 15 percent of female corresponding authors are in a subordinate relationship to a senior researcher, compared to just 8 percent of male researchers.

Differences in how male and female researchers use digital technologies also speak to broader challenges that women face in their chosen fields. Although they are less likely to use digital tools, as mentioned previously, women authors are more likely to engage in activities aimed at building and maintaining their digital identity, and to communicate information about their work online. This may indicate that, compared to their male colleagues, women need to put more effort into having their work recognised.

If countries fail to remedy gender discrepancies, they risk wasting considerable talent that could have otherwise made valuable contributions to their research systems.

These findings add to a large and growing body of evidence on the barriers to entry and bias that women face across all fields of research. Research has shown, for example, that men typically get more credit for co-authored papers in tenure decisions, and that women are held to higher standards when seeking to have their papers published in top journals.

Women today do not face the same barriers to entering doctoral programs; gender parity has been achieved at the doctoral level in many OECD countries, and women even outnumber men in some fields. Things clearly diverge, however, as women advance in their careers; failing to bridge the gender gap could have serious consequences – not only for women in academia, but also for society as a whole. Countries need to make systemic changes in academic structures and institutions to address gender issues, and keep the momentum to track and evaluate the results of the range of actions and policies to achieve gender equality in science. If countries fail to remedy gender discrepancies, they risk wasting considerable talent that could have otherwise made valuable contributions to their research systems, and knowledge production itself becomes inherently gender biased.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many orchestras began using blind auditions in an effort to mitigate any gender-related biases among judges. The experiment marked a turning point for female musicians, as the percentage of women in orchestras increased dramatically. Science today needs a similar turning point to eliminate systemic bias against women – and it may take similarly bold ideas to get there.

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