Male academics are more likely to praise their own research than women

Policy and legislation might successfully depict a mirage of equal opportunity, but true progress begins and ends with ideas. While it would certainly be disagreeable to express a higher degree of trust in male academicians in polite company, academia itself is still upheld by antiquated surveys of gender dynamics; as is demonstrated by both sides of the velvet rope. 

According to a new study published Tuesday in the journal BMJ, men are considerably more likely than women to decorate their own work with plaudits, namely ones that elude to the paper’s novelty and perspicacity. The researchers from Harvard, Yale, and the University of Mannheim, in Germany, write in their report, 

“Clinical articles involving a male first or last author were more likely to present research findings positively in titles and abstracts compared with articles in which both the first and last author were women, particularly in the highest impact journals. Positive presentation of research findings was associated with higher downstream citations.”

A perception disparity

The researchers behind the meta-analysis labored over 6 million different academic papers published between 2002 and 2017 before coming to their conclusion.  Because they didn’t have the pleasure of meeting every single study leader, they strategically compared each to an extensive database of names along with the gender that these names are most often associated with. In cases where there were several authors, the researchers singled out the studies’ first and last authors.

Focusing on the abstracts of each paper, the researchers soon descried an abundance of promotional terms that implied excellence from male authors. Just as often, this demographic would hasten to state how pioneering their research was. More discreetly, the term “novel” appeared 59% more often in articles written by men compared to those penned by women. Other frequently used adjectives by male academics included, “unique” “promising” and “unprecedented.”

Conversely, papers whose first and last authors were women, were 12% less likely to feature promotional adjectives in their abstracts. 

“Women remain underrepresented in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly Even the most recent surveys indicate that the proportion of women declines at every career step, including promotion to full professorship,” the report states. “Women also earn lower salaries, receive fewer research grants, and receive fewer citations than their male colleagues. One mechanism that may contribute to these gender gaps is differences in the extent to which women promote their research accomplishments relative to men.”

A cursory review of female outliers in any field elevates a potential ontological causality. For myself, a scan of literary figures might serve the curiosity best. Virginia Woolf,  Maya Angelou, Beatrix Potter, Rebecca West, Sylvia Plath, and Rula Jebreal, have all dedicated poignant roman à clefs to the under-appreciation of feminine self-assurance. In fact, when women express confidence it seems to be called something else. Alas, in any field wherein one group has been condemned to play catch up, a dose of feigned humility goes a long way. 

Every new paper seeks to either destroy or establish a final word. Every new paper has to claw its way to academic review, which means every new academic must temper any and all cosmetic liabilities, even if legislation has long since declared cosmetic liabilities inadmissible. The authors conclude, 

“Our study provides large scale evidence that men in academic medicine and the life sciences more broadly may present their own research more favorably than women, and that these differences may help to call attention to their research through higher downstream citations. These findings suggest that differences in the degree of self-promotion may contribute to the well-documented gender gaps in academic medicine and in science more broadly.6 8 10 Moreover, the observed gender differences seem most pronounced in the highest impact journals, which may disadvantage women when it matters the most.

The new paper, titled Gender differences in how scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, was written by Marc J Lerchenmueller, Olav Sorenson, and Anupam B Jena and can be read in full in the journal BMJ.