Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Someone asked me the other day if there was a difference in gender makeup of my collaborators—more male, more female, or about equal? I said that I currently have both male and female collaborators, but had never counted them up. I had a vague idea that the proportion of female collaborators had increased over time, but was not sure. So I looked at my publication record.

Less than 8 percent of my papers have been single-authored, so my publication record is dominated by co-authored papers. Most of my co-authors have been male, which I attribute to a number of factors: the colleague pool has been (and still is) male-dominated, more male than female colleagues have had substantial funding and active research programs (and the ability to collaborate), early papers were co-authored with an established male scientist (who was project leader on several grants). 41 percent of co-authored papers had at least one female co-author (colleagues, post-docs, students), and 16 percent had all female authors. 63 percent of papers published in the last ten years had female coauthors compared to 16 percent in the previous years.

Science articles with all-female authors occur, but I think are not very common. The dearth of senior female scientists in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) limits the possibility of all-female research teams composed of people who are well-established and funded. Perhaps there are more female advisor-female student papers, but all female authors who are senior scientists are rarer.

I’m currently one of six female coauthors of a paper in press—a review focused on a mutual area of research. We all have different specialties (biogeochemistry, plant ecology, animal ecology, plant physiology, modeling, etc.), but work in a common wetland ecosystem. Our publication was not planned to be an all-female effort, but arose out of a jointly-funded project. As I was reading the page proofs, it hit me that this manuscript reflected not only the progress made in our field, but perhaps something more. I don’t necessarily think that this paper is evidence of progress by female scientists. It obviously reflects a number of factors, including our interwoven histories, common interests, ability to work together for many years, etc. It also reflects the fact that we’ve all managed to succeed to the point that we have our own labs, independent research programs, and the choice of who we work with.

I think the main point is that I no longer wonder about whether I can find colleagues who are interested in working with me. I have gradually built a network of female scientists that I can contact anytime—for help, advice, or collaboration. Although I’ve been lucky to find a few male collaborators along the way, my experience (with male scientists) has not been overall positive, ranging from disinterest to incredulity (that I would suggest a joint project). My impression, though, is that this attitude (toward me, at least) has changed, and more male colleagues are seeking me out. I can’t tell if this is due to enlightenment within the scientific community or to my reputation (that I’ve worked hard to build). Probably both.

I hope the younger generation of female scientists is finding it easier to be accepted by male colleagues. If not, find other women in your field (or in related fields) and cultivate your own network. A number of science societies (go here for an example) are promoting mentoring programs, which is a great way to network with established scientists as well as peers. Even if you prefer working alone, it helps tremendously to have someone to talk to who understands your situation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've had similar experiences, my numbers are close to yours. There reaches a point though when women at superstar level become intimidating to the men, and at the same time, become sought out by more women for collaborative projects.

At the higher levels, women have access to more women coming up the chain. If you can get a position in a society, you can reach out to women and build networks. This includes volunteering for symposium stuff, registration desk sign-in, anything that puts you in contact with other members. As an editor of a journal, I'm always emailing male and female professors about students who I might be able to call on for manuscript reviews. Alot of them are women who aren't already in the reviewer system because the same old same old names get asked all the time. I also shoot for equal numbers of men and women reviewers, and also for broad international coverage. The women that I ask for reviews sometimes contact me on their own afterward with research questions, and I try to get them in contact with other women who might help too.

I wonder if we're in the same upcoming review! There's 3 women (myself included) on our paper. woot!