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Revealing gender disparities in research: Insights from Prof Hannah Valantine

June 10, 2024

By Stacey Tobin, PhD

Hannah Valantine, MD, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, is one of the experts featured in Elsevier’s new report Progress Towards Gender Equality in Research & Innovation.

Hannah Valantine, MD, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, is one of the experts featured in Elsevier’s new report Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation.

The data and analytics in Elsevier’s new gender report point to the pressing need to evolve traditional academic evaluation metrics and make the research workforce more inclusive

Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovationopens in new tab/window is Elsevier’s latest and most comprehensive analytics report mapping the advances and persistent challenges experienced by women researchers across two decades and 20 countries and regions. It aims to provide academic leaders, funders and policymakers with significant new data on the progress and ongoing disparities in the research ecosystem and inform evidence-based actions that will support continued progress toward gender equality. The report and accompanying Gender Dashboard offer valuable intersectional insights into women’s contributions to the global research ecosystem, reveal the pressing need for the evolution of traditional academic evaluation metrics, and emphasize the continuing imperative for greater inclusiveness in the research workforce.

Cover of Elsevier's 2024 report Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation

We spoke to Dr Hannah Valantineopens in new tab/window, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and the inaugural Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity at the National Institutes of Health. She brings a unique and highly informed perspective to the discussion about gender disparity in academic research. Here, she shares her thoughts on the report and its findings and impact.

On gender disparity in patent filings

Known for her own groundbreaking work in promoting diversity and inclusion in scientific research in academia, Dr Valantine was struck by the report’s data on gender disparities in patent filings as a measure of innovation. She commented that the data reflects a persistent and troubling gap between the individuals who conduct research and those who receive recognition for it.

“I was shocked by the gender gap in patent filings,” she said. “This has tremendous implications for leadership and ultimately financials. Most patents are worked on by a team, and the people actually doing the work in the labs are often junior technical people and often women. There’s a real disconnect here: Either they’re not being invited to be authors on patents or they’re not pushing themselves forward to be authors on patents, but the net result is their absence.”

In academia, she noted, this disparity in recognition for discovery has significant implications when it comes to career advancement, with the contributions of creative, innovative faculty left unrecognized.

Infographic: Patents remain low for women, with 3/4 of patent applications filed by men-only teams. Women involved in 26% of all patent filings. (Source: data from Elsevier's 2024 report "Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation")

Source: Data from Elsevier’s 2024 report Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation

A call for an inclusive research culture

While Dr Valantine was heartened by data in the report showing continued improvement in women’s representation in research, with many countries moving closer to and even achieving gender parity, she noted that representation alone does not necessarily equate to inclusion or a sense of belonging within the academic community. She noted that this may be due in part to a mismatch between what is valued by institutions as measures of academic or professional success and the true impact of science on society.

Chart show a high variation in participation by region in the percentage of active researchers who are women. (Source: Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation, Elsevier, 2024)

Source: Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation, Elsevier, 2024

“There needs to be better alignment in what gets rewarded within institutions and incentive mechanisms,” she said. “There’s a huge disconnect between universities embracing more collaboration, inter- and multi-disciplinarity over the last 20 to 30 years, but allowing their appointment structures, criteria and incentives to lag behind. What is still valued is the individual contribution. Many women are caught in the middle doing great work but not finding that work valued. Ultimately, they leave academia, and we lose role models for the next generation.”

While women researchers are doing highly translational work as members of teams — often on projects with high societal impact — these aspects of their research are not captured by academic institutions, Dr Valantine noted. She said broadening the criteria for promotion and tenure that values multidisciplinary and collaborative research, as well as research impact, would create a more inclusive institutional culture that is also more likely to support gender equality.

She added: “I was just so taken aback and excited by the gender report’s scope, depth, breadth, thoughtfulness and potential for real impact. It can lead to institutional change and real culture change within institutions, funding agencies and individual researchers.”

The benefits of a global view

Dr Valantine said she also appreciated the inclusion of more countries, particularly those from the “Global South.” She felt that these additions are essential, not only to understand the globalization of research but also to consider how the unique local contexts and challenges inform global research trends.

Dr Valantine pointed out the smaller gender gaps in countries in the Global South. She noted that while there are likely various reasons why these specific countries have succeeded in closing the gender gap, many have intentionally focused on women’s leadership programs to foster the next generation of women researchers.

“The fact that women’s research is highly cited in policies makes me think about how women collectively have decided to prioritize the few resources they do have. In the same vein in which organizations, funders, research institutions, universities and companies are working on the globalization of research, we need a globalization of gender equity,” Dr Valantine stated.

Dr Valantine hopes the report will encourage countries to learn from each other and adapt solutions to their local contexts to continue moving towards gender parity within their research workforces.

Infographic states: "Women more likely to be quoted outside of the academic world." (Source: Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation, Elsevier, 2024)

Source: Progress Toward Gender Equality in Research & Innovation, Elsevier, 2024

Translating data into action

In our wide-ranging discussion with Dr Valantine, she emphasized the importance of having comprehensive data to drive evidence-based change in policies and institutional cultures, within the academy and across the global research community:

My big question is how you can leverage data to actually create change — and in particular, culture change. I think this is worthy of some deep thought together with social scientists, organizational change experts, thought leaders and leaders of institutions. You now have the data and the evidence, so the next step is adoption and change, which is much harder than getting the data.

Dr Valantine upheld the report as a valuable resource for institutions seeking guidance to advance gender equality in their research workforce. She encouraged institutional leaders and policymakers to reach out to colleagues in other countries and collaborate to adapt and implement solutions that will build inclusive research environments that value the voices and contributions of everyone.


Stacey Tobin, PhD


Stacey Tobin, PhD

Biomedical Writer and Editor

The Tobin Touch

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