Gender balance in research: new analytical report reveals uneven progress

Elsevier examines research performance through a gender lens in global, cross-disciplinary study

Elsevier’s new gender report examines 10 years of research data from Scopus and ScienceDirect across 12 geographies and 27 subject areas.

There is widespread agreement that fostering diversity is integral to innovation in research, and gender equality is key to achieving this. Critical issues related to gender disparity and bias must be examined by sound studies to support a data-informed approach to implementing interventions and policy related to gender inequality.

A report released today provides unprecedented insight into these issues. Gender in the Global Research Landscape was produced by Elsevier in partnership with global experts to provide an analytical framework for better understanding the role of gender within the structure of the global research enterprise. Based on 20 years of data from Scopus and ScienceDirect – across 12 geographies and all 27 Scopus subject areas – the report is an evidence-based examination of global research performance through a gender lens.

Over the past decade, Elsevier has undertaken several large-scale initiatives pertaining to gender, such as the Elsevier Foundation’s New Scholars program, a trans-business Gender Working Group, and the Mapping Gender in the German Research Arena report. This latest work builds on these and indicates that although there has been significant progress towards gender balance in research, there are many pressing issues left to be tackled.

Holly Falk-Krzesinski, PhDDr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Elsevier’s VP of Strategic Alliances for Global Academic Relations, explained:

A lot of discussions around gender disparity are driven by experience and speculation. While that’s a great place to start, there is a gap that makes it difficult to move to effective interventions and policy. This report focuses on data, providing empirical insight that must be an integral part of informed decision making. Progress is occurring, albeit incrementally and unevenly, which is a sign that efforts to encourage women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are gaining traction. With this report, we provide data that can be used – and built upon – by research leaders, stakeholders in government and funding bodies, and policymakers more broadly.


The report employs a unique gender disambiguation methodology and is based on analyses of Scopus and ScienceDirect data conducted by Elsevier. Scopus Author Profiles were combined with gender-name data from social media, applied onomastics, and Wikipedia. The disciplinary breadth of the Scopus database was used to assess changes across a wide range of subject areas over time.

For example, the following charts in Chapter 3 of the report show terms used in the social sciences (left) and biomedical sciences (right). The 2011-15 map includes more terms and is therefore more densely populated, reflecting the growth in gender research. The close association of terms reflected in the groups of overlapping clusters also indicate the increasing prevalence of interdisciplinary research.

<strong>Figure 3.1</strong> — Terms with 40+ occurrences in worldwide gender research, 1996 – 2000 (Sources: Scopus and VOSviewer). Click on image to enlarge.

<strong>Figure 3.2</strong> — Terms with 40+ occurrences in worldwide gender research, 2011 – 2015 (Sources: Scopus and VOSviewer). Click on image to enlarge.

The study was further informed by input from stakeholder organizations and individuals around the world, including the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). These global experts provided advice on the report’s research questions, methodologies and analytics, as well as interviews with experts and influencers, supplementing the quantitative data with qualitative perspectives to provide context for the findings.

The aim of the report is to provide institutions, funders, governments and other stakeholders with data-driven insights and guidance on gender research and gender equality policy. The authors also hope it will inspire further evidence-based studies while establishing quantifiable benchmarks against which future progress towards gender equality in research can be measured.

Key Findings

  • The percentage of women among researchers and inventors has increased over the past 20 years.
  • Although women tend to publish fewer research articles than men, their articles are cited or downloaded at similar rates.
  • The proportion of patent applications with at least one woman among their inventors tends to be higher than the proportion of women among inventors.
  • Women are slightly less likely than men to collaborate across academic and corporate sectors on research articles.
  • Women are generally less internationally mobile than men; women are less likely to collaborate internationally on research papers.
  • Health and Life Sciences fields of research are found to have the highest representation of women, while Physical Sciences are dominated by men.

Drawing on the literature, the report also provides some possible explanations for continuing inequalities. Aside from a persistent bias in hiring, authorship, recognition and promotion, it describes a “Matilda effect,” in which women authors are associated with a lower perceived quality of publication and interest in collaboration compared to men. Generally, women are more likely than men to have a non-linear career path and to leave the academic track because of personal factors, such as maternity.

Yet in many areas, the report highlights that women do overcome such bias and continue to significantly contribute to the global research ecosystem. One indication of this is the fact that the number of patents listing women as an author is significantly higher than the number of women inventors across several key geographies. In Japan, for example, only eight percent of inventors are women, yet the proportion of patents listing women among their inventors is twice as high, hinting at high productivity rates in terms of patent applications among those who do manage to break through these barriers.

Looking to the future

Key members of the global research community agree that the evidence-based approach adopted in the report is key to enabling policymakers to effectively tackle gender inequality going forward. Accurate and comprehensive empirical insights will empower governments, funders and institutions worldwide to make better decisions as they set their gender balance agenda and look to implement policies and initiatives.

Expert commentary

These are some comments by the subject experts who provided guidance for the report.

Prof. Uta Frith, PhD, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, UCL “I was excited to see how emerging technologies can provide precise information about gender differences in existing scientific publications. Elsevier’s Scopus can be interrogated to tell who publishes what, where, and when, and this report uses the data to identify discrepancies in the publishing practices of men and women worldwide. This makes it an important resource, which will enable us to explore ideas about the causes of gender inequality in science.” — Dr. Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University College London

Prof. James Stirling, PhD, Provost, Imperial College London

“The primary value of the data is that it enables us to benchmark ourselves, not only with other UK institutions, but also, and just as importantly, with other comparable international institutions. When I read through the report, there were several sets of data that I found particularly interesting because they were providing quantitative confirmation of my perception of the issues; for example, the imbalance in the proportion of female authors and subjects was consistent with my own understanding.” — Prof. James Stirling, Provost, Imperial College London

Vladimir Šucha, Director-General of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre

“With the complex problems policymakers face they will surely need evidence. But they will also need a new understanding of how evidence and policy interact. I see great potential for data analysis in identifying biases, including gender bias, in our organizations and in how we evaluate research. Your report is an important step towards obtaining this evidence.” — Vladimir Šucha, PhD, Director-General of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Miyoko O. Watanabe, Deputy Executive Director, Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Japan Science and Technology Agency. “Society has changed, and as situations become more complicated, we now need data and evidence to make informed decisions data can in fact prove to be a new common language in the future: “It can be very difficult to communicate on a global scale, across languages, particularly when a situation is very complicated…If we analyze evidence through scientific data, it is much easier to understand each other. I think data is our new language.” — Miyoko O. Watanabe, Deputy Executive Director, Office for Diversity and Inclusion, Japan Science and Technology Agency

An example of valuable insight extracted from this data is the fact that among researchers, women have been shown to specialize less than men; their output tended to be slightly more interdisciplinary in nature.

“We see that based on your indicators, women are doing slightly better than men on this front,” said Dr. Vladimir Šucha, Director-General of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. “However, we have a problem there… interdisciplinary output tends to have a lower citation impact.”

With that in mind, Dr. James Stirling, Provost of Imperial College London, suggested that “perhaps more consequential promotion of interdisciplinarity could have a positive impact on women researchers in particular.”

“Women prefer research that links more than one field,” explained Miyoko O. Watanabe, Deputy Executive Director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at the Japan Science and Technology Agency. “This is probably related to women being more inclined to think and work globally. Women are capable of working anywhere and communicating with many people across broad fields of research.”

She added that this interdisciplinary approach is becoming increasingly important nowadays, and that gender equality can serve to connect disparate issues and provide better solutions to complex problems.

In spite of the many ongoing challenges, there is also much optimism about the future for gender equality in research: “Female representation among graduate and doctoral students is growing, this is an increasing and promising basis for achieving equal representation of both genders in science,” Dr. Šucha said.

Watanabe said that what is needed is a “new type of labor force – one that fully includes women – to revitalize innovation.

Prof. Londa Schiebinger, PhD, Director of Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment at Stanford University.

Dr. Londa Schiebinger, Director of Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment at Stanford University, agreed. In addition, in an interview in the report, she urges funding agencies and universities to provide more training for researchers:

Even though a lot of funding agencies have policies that consider the “gender dimension,” or how sex and gender are integrated into research, most researchers don’t know how to carry out this type of research in sophisticated ways. These methods are not at the heart of university curricula.

Meanwhile, Dr. Stirling believes the crucial question we must ask ourselves is a fundamental one: “Why it is important to have more women in STEM?”

To me, the answer is quite simple: with this level of gender imbalance, we are not properly exploiting the UK scientific talent base. The evidence clearly shows that there is absolutely no difference between the quality of research performed by men and women scientists. So, it stands to reason that if we want to increase the quality of science globally, we need to have more women involved in STEM research. It is as simple as that.

Gender in the Global Research Landscape reportRead the report

The report is freely available to download worldwide. For mor information on analytical reports, please visit Analytical Services.

Related resources

Elsevier has created a Gender and Science Resource Center as a source of information for researchers, research leaders, policymakers and anyone else interested in gender diversity and its impact on science and the society. The resource center includes: the report, a public Mendeley library of the main references used in the report, an infographic and more.

Attend an event

To promote broad sharing of the report findings and promote discussion on issues of gender in research, Elsevier will host a series of events across the globe.

Several regions across the world will host events to present and discuss the report’s findings. The first event will be held on Friday 31 March in Washington, DC, at the National Press Club.

Speakers include Dr. Rita Colwell, Chair of the National Academies Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine and former Director of the National Science Foundation, and Dr. Londa Schiebinger, Director of the EU/US Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment Project at Stanford University.

This will be followed by  events in Brussels in May; at the Gender Summit Asia Pacific in Tokyo May 24-26; and the Gender Summit North America in Montreal November 6-8. Details will be posted on Elsevier’s Gender and Science Resource Center.


Written by

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio

Written by

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio is a technology writer with a particular interest in how digital technologies affect the education and scholarly research landscape. She has a master’s degree in Creative and Media Enterprises from the University of Warwick and regularly contributes to publications such as The Next Web, Wired, Ars Technica, Times Higher Education (THE) and Fast Company.

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