Despite a narrowing of the gender gap in science, women still lag behind men, especially at the highest levels. In the life sciences, for example, women now earn just as many doctoral degrees as men. But they hold only one out of four full professorships at research universities in the United States. Women in the life sciences also earn less and receive less research funding than men.
Many factors contribute to these gender disparities in academia. Productivity differences, however, cannot account for them. Instead, research suggests that women receive less recognition than men for equivalent accomplishments. Just why they receive less attention has been an open question.
Our research examined whether women and men differ in the degree to which they promote — or spin — their accomplishments by using positive terms when describing their research. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, we document that women use fewer of these positive adjectives in research articles. These differences in presentation, in turn, appear to influence the amount of attention that their articles receive.
The rate of scientific publication has exploded over the last few decades. The life sciences alone recently passed 1 million articles per year, a fourfold increase in scholarly output compared with the early 1980s. But with this wealth of information has come a poverty of attention. Scientists have had to become ever more choosy in deciding what to read and how to allocate their time. Self-promotion has almost certainly become more important than ever in capturing scientists' attention.
Self-promotion differs in several important ways from other means of vying for scarce resources, such as applying for grants or negotiating for pay. Individuals often have substantial control over the extent to which they promote themselves. And opportunities to self-promote abound, from sharing research via social media to framing results in articles and presentations in the most favorable light.
We examined potential gender differences in self-promotion by analysing the titles and abstracts of approximately 6.2 million research articles in the life sciences, published over a 15-year period (2002—2017). Our information on articles comes from the PubMed database. We determined author gender probabilistically, by using the first names of the authors and the Genderise database. If at least 90 per cent of people with a particular name were women, we coded the author as a woman.
Our analyses focused on language use in article titles and abstracts, because these passages represent some of the most important text to convey the main findings. Scientists often use these short passages to determine what to read in detail. We counted the number of times authors used a set of 25 distinctively positive words — like "novel," "unique," "prominent," "excellent" and "unprecedented." We also used natural language processing to characterise the text surrounding these positive words.
One difficulty in studying language usage stems from the fact that every article reports a unique piece of research, yet these findings differ in their novelty and in their importance. If men happen to conduct more novel research than women, then men's more frequent use of phrases like "novel finding" may simply reflect the nature of the work, as opposed to self-promotion. To ensure a comparison of apples to apples, we compared only publications that investigated topics of similar novelty (determined from the keywords assigned to the articles). We also compared only articles published in the same journals in the same years to account for differences in journal prestige and subject area.
A second difficulty stems from the question of attribution. Science, and especially the life sciences, has become a team sport. Determining who wrote what in an article with three or more authors can prove difficult. Here, norms help us. Long-standing tradition in the life sciences usually assigns the first author position to the junior scientist who executed the project and the last author position to the senior investigator who funded and who often conceived the project. We therefore compared articles written by teams of female first and last authors to teams that involved at least one man in either lead position.
We found that articles written by female first and last authors were up to 21 per cent less likely to use positive terms to frame their research findings than comparable articles published in the most prestigious journals with at least one man in a lead author position. Additional analyses confirmed that these positive words typically qualified the findings: We would frequently see word combinations such as "novel approach," "unique mechanism" or "promising result." Both men and women used the positive words to describe their findings, but women used them less frequently.
We also examined whether these gender differences in self-promotion had consequences by determining whether they influenced the number of downstream citations (when the work is referenced by others). We found that articles with positive words received up to 13 per cent more citations compared with research of similar novelty published in the same journals but without the positive framing. This apparent advantage of positive framing was largest for articles published in the most influential journals, those with a journal impact factor exceeding 10. In other words, authors who did not self-promote paid a price — in terms of receiving less attention — particularly when they published in the most prominent journals.
For both first and last authors, gender differences in self-promotion appeared most pronounced at early- and midcareer stages. As women rose through the ranks, their usage of positive words increased. At the most senior levels, the disparity disappears (the 95 per cent confidence intervals straddle the parity line). Some of this effect may stem from selection, with the more self-promotional authors having better odds of reaching these senior ranks. But women may also present their research more confidently as they gain seniority.
Does this mean women should hype their research more? Our research cannot inform the optimal degree of positive framing for the scientific community. Generally speaking, the language used should accurately reflect the quality and importance of the findings. Our study reveals that women self-promote less than men, but we cannot say whether women understate their achievements or whether men overstate them.
Although our research has focused on the life sciences, we suspect that these gender disparities in self-promotion occur in a wide variety of settings, probably contributing to the societal gender gaps in pay and promotion. So it seems fair to say that women would do well to promote their accomplishments more. But the onus does not reside only with them. Male colleagues also need to encourage women and ensure that they do not get penalised for the self-promotion they do.
Written by: Marc J. Lerchenmueller, Olav Sorenson and Anupam B. Jena
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