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Despite progress in gender balance in global scientific research over the past two decades, serious challenges remain, a new analysis by scientific publisher Elsevier shows. While more women are actively involved in research than ever before, they remain underrepresented in many fields, at career levels, and as authors of publications and patents.

The new analysis shows that women accounted for 41% of active researchers worldwide in 2022, compared to 28% in 2001. This is the first time that the proportion of women in research has reached the 40-60% parity zone.

A graph showing the percentage of women as active authors in works on various STEM subjects. The overall figure is 39%.

However, the participation of women in research varies considerably across disciplines. While women are well represented in the health sciences, including nursing and microbiology, they remain underrepresented in many scientific fields. In the natural sciences, for example, only 33% of researchers are female. In chemistry, 40% of researchers worldwide are female, while in chemical engineering and materials science, this figure is 38% and 32% respectively.

And while almost half of early career researchers are female, the proportion of women among researchers in the most advanced stages of their careers is only 27%.

The new report also identified a persistent gap between the proportion of women involved in research and their citation as authors in research papers. While women made up 41% of active researchers in 2022, only 35% of research papers were authored by women. This gap has remained constant over the past two decades, which Elsevier says is due to “systemic issues that prevent women from publishing as often as men.” The report also points out that, on average, publications by men are cited more often than those by women.

A line graph showing the increase in female authorship from 23% in 2022 to 35% in 2022. Among active authors, this share is 41% in 2022, a steady increase from 29% in 2002.

Inequalities are also evident in research funding, although the average share of women appears to be slowly increasing. In countries with sufficient grant data to allow analysis, the average share of female grantees increased from 29% in 2009 to 37% in 2022. The largest increases were recorded in the Netherlands, Denmark, the UK, France, Canada and Portugal. “Although women received more grants, these increases were not sufficient to keep pace with the growing share of active female researchers,” the report says.

Women were also significantly underrepresented in patent applications. In 2022, three-quarters of patent applications were filed either by men alone or by teams consisting entirely of men. Almost all patent application teams have at least one man, while only 3% of patent applications were filed by teams consisting entirely of women.

A graph comparing the gender ratio in patent applications. Worldwide, 97% of patent applications are by at least one man, but only 24% are by at least one woman.

The report makes several recommendations, including prioritizing the retention of early career female researchers into mid- and senior career stages and developing incentive structures that help women play an equal role throughout the research and innovation value chain. Other recommendations include applying a broad range of indicators to measure research effectiveness, such as societal and policy impact, and continuing to collect and report data on inclusion and diversity to monitor progress, identify gaps, evaluate policies and promote accountability.

Disappointed and not surprised

“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” says Polly Arnold, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who also heads the Division of Chemical Sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and advocates for diversity in science. “There have not been enough, if any, systems changes,” she continues. “Everyone’s biases against underrepresented groups will continue to hinder our ability to identify and promote talent.”

Shirley Malcom, senior advisor and director of the Stem Equity Achievement Change initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says the report underscores the complexity of the current science ecosystem for women. “While there has been progress in some countries and in many areas in terms of representation, research support, publications and the like, there are also challenges that require targeted interventions,” says Malcom Chemistry world. “Research by women in the life sciences has been on an upward trend for many years and we are seeing the fruits of this development in both numbers and impact, but the strength of this trend of increased female participation is not yet extending as much to the innovation ecosystem, for example.”

Malcom adds that the extent of progress for women in scientific disciplines reflects the culture of those fields, and that opportunities for women generally reflect the culture of countries and prevailing attitudes toward the role of women. “Who is valued in science – and whose work is valued – seems to be overly tied to things that can be counted rather than things that count.”

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