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Men are first authors in 3 times as many academic papers published in India as women

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According to the first large-scale analysis of gender in Indian research publishing, the gender gap doesn’t fluctuate much between different fields.

Bengaluru: It’s not difficult to guess that like most walks of life, Indian women would be underrepresented in academia as well. But a study conducted by a team from the University of Wolverhampton, UK, in conjunction with the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, has found just how underrepresented — men are first authors in three times as many academic papers as those with a female first author.

This is the first large-scale analysis of gender in Indian research publishing, and appeared this month in the Journal of Informetrics.

The study compared gender inequality in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in India with the US, and found that while there are fewer female first authors overall, the gender gap doesn’t fluctuate much between different fields in India.

Women and non-men have traditionally been hindered from as productive a STEM career path as men due to societal and cultural obstacles.

Gender imbalance in India

India is a lead example to showcase gender inequality and a potential cultural shift in the 21st century.

The United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index of 2017 ranked India at 127 out of 189, with data showing that even at secondary education level, girls were falling behind. Two years before that, India ranked 125 out of 159.

Just 39 per cent of women aged 25 and above have a secondary level education (compared to 64 per cent of men). Only 27 per cent of women aged over 15 are in the workforce, compared to 79 per cent of men.

But India also produces a large body of research scholars each year. In fact, India is the fifth highest producer of research in 2017, according to Scopus.

Furthermore, unlike in the US, gender differences and under-representation is not as well studied, documented, and understood in India. All of this makes Indian research a prime subject for a gender study.

Also read: Gender gap widening: India slips 21 spots to 108th on World Economic Forum’s index

The findings

The study took into consideration 27,710 scientific articles/papers published in 2017 in India, where the first author affiliations are explicitly Indian.

The study was accompanied by a caveat — it used a baseline assumption that first author is typically the first author of the study with the maximum contribution, while the last author is mostly the professor who oversaw it. However, this is not always true in India, considering several senior professors or international collaborators insist on being the first author in a research paper.

The team conducting the study considered three questions: In which fields is there a male or female publishing imbalance among authors in India? Which topics and methods are gendered in Indian-authored journal articles? To what extent do both answers echo the situation in the US?

The results showed that among 26 “broad fields” (psychology, engineering, medicine, physics, arts etc.), men outnumbered women as first authors threefold, although differences did exist in narrow fields which are subcategories. For example, in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, women outnumbered men by almost 20 per cent, perhaps reflecting female patients’ preference for a female OB/GYN as well.

Gap closing in tertiary education

There are patterns comparing Indian academia to the US as well, and clearly, the two countries are vastly different.

For example, 95 per cent of people in the US — male and female — obtain secondary education. However, India has more women in Parliament than the US, ranking 15th out of 144 for female political empowerment by the World Economic Forum’s gender gap report of 2017.

The gender gap, though, has been closing. Tertiary education (college and above) shows that nearly 47 per cent of undergraduates are women, and 41 per cent of PhD students are as well. Among the PhDs, almost 49 per cent of the degrees in 2016 were in STEM.

Previous studies have shown rampantly sexist hiring practices — even among eminent institutes — a prime fear being losing female staff to pregnancy and domestic roles. However, the role of male importance does display a declining trend in India academia.

Similar studies conducted in the US show that two fields have a very distinct female dominance — nursing and veterinary science. General healthcare seems to have near-parity as well. This isn’t the case in India, where consistently across fields, men dominate. In fact, veterinary care is a subject women prefer the least, probably due to safety issues in caring for animals in remote villages.

In India, women form a high proportion of authors in fields like statistics, economics, finance, dentistry, nano materials, genetics, cancer, cell biology, food, drugs, and surprisingly, wastewater management.”

Also read: In 200 years, women might be able to earn the same as men

Things versus people

The authors say the subjects women and men prefer to study follow patterns similar to the US: Men like ‘thing-oriented’ subjects like computer science and engineering, while women flock to ‘people-oriented’ fields like healthcare and education. The under-representation of women in STEM subjects is parallel to the under-representation of men in HEED (healthcare, elementary education, and the domestic sphere).

There are exceptions, of course. Subjects like business, management, and even surgery are people-oriented, but dominated by men.

However, unlike the US, none of the fields have a disproportionately large gender gap in India. The gap seems more or less consistent across different subjects. This can be traced to the culture and ingrained sexism within areas of studies: In the US, subjects like engineering or computer science are very much dominated by hostile men, making women choose to not go into them.

Even though the gender gap is cross-cultural, these differences aren’t hardwired across cultures and gender influences vary by society. For example, the US leads in men being computer engineers but the field is completely dominated by women in Malaysia.

In India, women make up 46.3 per cent of the IT graduates compared to 23 per cent in the US, and 42 per cent of STEM graduates compared to just 20 per cent in America. A large part of these numbers are attributed to safety in IT companies and workplaces for women, and parental desire to encourage young girls to enter the IT workforce due to either the abundance of IT jobs or for boosting marital prospects, or both.

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