Improve the representation of female scientists

2017-09-17 06:06
Nox Makunga

Nox Makunga

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Recent findings by a South African university show that women have a lower research output than their male counterparts and are less likely than men to be published in scientific journals.

This supports my own findings in the field of medicinal plants, natural products and biotechnology.

According to my calculations, women participated in only 33% of the papers published in the top-tier journals in the field. This is disproportionate to the growing number of women who are obtaining postgraduate qualifications in this field.

There are also fewer female than male students publishing in journals as first authors or as the principal investigators globally. This suggests that the technical expertise of female scientists is being used to generate data, but they are not setting the research agenda.

Research also shows us that papers written by women are less likely to be cited than those of their male counterparts. Men are also more likely to cite themselves than female researchers.

Citations are increasingly used as a measure of scholarly output and influence. And, for South African scientists, this often influences how researchers are rated by the National Research Foundation.

The gender imbalance is also reflected by the fact that far fewer women than men serve on journal boards and participate in the peer-review process globally.

A study showed that gender-based publication productivity was correlated to women generally having lower qualification levels and lower hierarchical positions in South African academia, which has consequences for individual women, as well as for the field more broadly.

Gendered innovation is research and development that takes sex and gender into consideration. It can produce better and safer research and technological results.

Based on their experiences, women can draw attention to facts and ideas that the male perspective may miss. But mere participation is not enough. Women need to be leaders and authorities if they are to direct research.

The department of science and technology has tried to enable more women to follow careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One of its initiatives is the South African PhD Project, which strives to increase the number of qualified South African research doctoral graduates.

This has resulted in a steady increase in the number of women graduating in these fields.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor also supported the establishment of 42 research chairs led by female academics in 2014.

Acknowledging and discussing the gender equality challenge is the first step towards a positive solution, but more is needed to mentor, support and promote women at universities and research institutions.

Three changes can make a difference. One is better representation on the editorial boards of journals. Another is gender-neutral citations.

The third is more research to reveal the full extent of the bias and its causes. That will show the route towards parity.

Makunga is associate professor for medicinal plant biotechnology at Stellenbosch University.

This article first appeared in The Conversation

Read more on:    naledi pandor  |  science

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