Research Spotlight: Study shows gender gap in scholarly awards

Stock photo of scientist in laboratoryWomen scientists must confront sexism when competing for scholarly awards, according to a new analysis.

Research funded by the National Science Foundation and sponsored by the Association for Women in Science found that female scientists win service or teaching awards in proportion to the number of women in the Ph.D. pool for their discipline, says SMU sociologist Anne Lincoln.

However, that’s not the case for awards for their research, says Lincoln, one of three authors on the analysis, which was reported in Nature. The number of women who win scholarly awards is far fewer, the authors report.

“Using data in the public domain on 13 disciplinary societies, we found that the proportion of female prizewinners in 10 of these was much lower than the proportion of female full professors in each discipline,” the authors write.

Why the gap? Lincoln, an assistant professor in the Sociology Department of Dedman College, and her co-authors point to the award selection process.

An analysis found that selection committees carry out their duties with few guidelines, minimal oversight and little attention to conflict-of-interest issues, the authors write. The researchers’ investigation found that the chances a woman will win an award for her research improve if a woman is serving on the committee. But many committees have no female members, few have female chairs, and there are few female nominees, said the authors.

Nomination letters for women typically include personal details and contain stereotypically female adjectives, such as “cooperative” and “dependable,” the authors report in the article.

“Notices soliciting nominations, by contrast, tend to use language that fosters male images, such as ‘decisive’ or ‘confident,’” they say.

Co-authors were Stephanie H. Pincus, founder of the RAISE Project, sponsored by the Society for Women’s Health Research; and biochemist Phoebe S. Leboy at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the Association for Women in Science.

Seven U.S. science societies are working now with the Association for Women in Science and using the findings to change selection committee practices, say the authors.

Written by Margaret Allen

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