Different research practices amongst women and men

A recent report from the Norwegian research institute NIFU STEP shows that men outnumber women within commercial and business-oriented research and that female researchers are less involved in international collaboration and peer review than their male colleagues.

March 5, 2009

It seems that female researchers to a lesser degree participate in formal and informal networks that are important to publish papers, find resources and succeed in science. This is one of the findings in the NIFU STEP report Working conditions in Norwegian research (Arbeidsvilkår i norsk forskning).

Fewer women than men conduct business-oriented research, and women who work within these fields participate less in commercial activity, shows a report from NIFU STEP (illustration: iStockphoto).

“Former studies on women in science have often focused on recruitment, career paths and publishing data. This time, however, we have identified certain aspects of the working conditions in the research sector,” says Agnete Vabø, Head of research in Higher Education at NIFU STEP. She is responsible for Norway’s participation in an international comparative study regarding the working conditions of academic staff – Changing Academic Profession.

The study involves academic staff at Norwegian research institutions; universities, professional colleges and the institute sector. The researchers have been asked to assess their access to different resources like money, personnel and facilities, the balance between research and teaching and their views on the management, organisation and work environment.

New challenges

“The study is primarily aimed at understanding the differences in men’s and women’s research practices, which are important to be aware of as the gender gap is reduced. What happens when more women enter research? What challenges will we be faced with,” Vabø asks.

The researchers were asked about the focus of their research with regard to commercially, socially, internationally and discipline oriented research versus multidisciplinary or inter-disciplinary research.

The findings indicate that there are more female than male researchers in areas which are considered to be less intellectually valued. In processes aimed at commercialisation and technology transfer female researchers are not surprisingly underrepresented.

“This includes processes of a commercial character, for instance directed at patenting and product development, in other words areas that receive more and more focus,” says Vabø.

That considerably fewer women than men researchers say that they have been involved in technology transfer/business-oriented research is of course a reflection of the low ratio of women in technological research. But relatively speaking, fewer women than men who work in this field state that they have participated in such activity.

“To explain these figures, however, we need other methodological approaches, not least qualitative studies,” says Vabø.

In a discussion surrounding these figures the report states that the different roles of male and female researchers in ‘the entrepreneurial university’ must be related to and analysed in relation to the transformation of universities and research in the transition from a welfare state to a welfare society, from playing a central part as agents of the welfare state to becoming more of an entrepreneur in a market.

“The interaction between welfare state and research has been important in order to give female researchers in Norway a boost. But now we see that new resource-rich areas of research are appearing, arenas in which women are lagging behind. The marginalisation of women in these arenas will pose a challenge with regard to achieving gender equality in science,” Vabø points out.

Less international collaboration

The study also found that female researchers are less involved in international research collaboration and peer review than men.

Women are less involved in peer review and publish less in international journals than men (illustration: iStockphoto).

One explanation for why fewer women are involved in international research collaboration may be that more women work within fields with an applied and/or national orientation. Less international collaboration among female researchers indicates that parts of this group fall behind with regard to the quality criteria that are required in science, both among peers and in current research policy, the report states.

In the study, 75 percent of the men as opposed to 61 percent of the women have participated in peer review over the last year. Also, previous studies have shown that women in general publish less than men, and particularly so in international journals. There are no obvious explanations as to why this is the case.

“We need more differentiated analyses of the publishing patterns and we need to know more about publishing contexts and traditions. There is a high ratio of female academics within the humanities. So why do so few women publish in recognised journals? Is it because there are fewer journals that cover the fields with a high number of women? Or is it because women to a lesser extent participate in national and international networks that are important in order to increase one’s access to recognised journals? And why are women not more active when it comes to peer review,” Vabø asks.

Less satisfied with the communication

Amongst those who teach, female researchers experience less harmony between research and teaching. In addition, they are less satisfied with regard to communication with the management and with the access to assistance (secretaries and teaching and research assistants) than their male colleagues. This is particularly noticeable among female researchers within the humanities and medicine.

However, Vabø emphasises that a majority of the respondents believe that women and men have equal opportunities for a career in science. Furthermore, a majority disagrees with the statement ‘There have been instances of discrimination against women at my institution’. Still, women and men respond differently on this point: More women than men agree with this statement.

Translated by Vigdis Isachsen

The CAP study

The CAP study in Norway was conducted between November 2007 and January 2008 among a statistically representative selection of academic staff at universities, professional colleges and research institutes. Around 1800 people participated in the study.

The study involved key academic staff at:

  • The universities of Agder, Bergen, Oslo, Stavanger, Trondheim, Tromsø, and Ås
  • The public professional colleges AHO, NHH, NIH, NMH, and NVH
  • Around 100 units in the institute sector, of which SINTEF was the largest

This work is part of an international study. The survey called The Changing Academic Profession (CAP) compares research conditions in around 20 different countries.

The Committee for Mainstreaming – Women in science has helped finance the study.