A new study adds to a growing body of research that suggests subtle differences in how women describe their discoveries may affect their career trajectories. Male authors were more likely to sprinkle words like “novel,” “unique” and “excellent” into the abstracts that summarize their scientific papers, compared to female authors. Such positively framed findings were more likely to be cited by peers later on, a key measure of the influence of a person’s research, according to the study published in the British Medical Journal.
“The complicated question that this data is raising is: Should women start to overhype their research?” said Marc Lerchenmueller, an economist at the University of Mannheim who led the BMJ study.
Lerchenmueller was inspired to study how male and female scientists communicate their work after discussions with his wife, Carolin Lerchenmueller, a cardiologist and scientist. When the couple read research papers at home in the evening, Carolin would sometimes remark aloud that a paper made a bold claim that appeared to overstate the importance of the results. Their evening discussions of spin in academia led Marc to wonder if there was a way to look for systematic differences in how scientists and physicians of different genders framed their findings.
“Is this something that might be more acceptable when men do it, vs. when women do it?” Marc Lerchenmueller said.
His team analyzed more than 100,000 medical studies and 6.2 million life sciences article that were published over a 15-year period, finding that women-authored studies were 12 percent less likely to contain at least one of a group of 25 positive terms, including “favorable,” “excellent” and “prominent.” In the most prestigious and influential journals, women were 21 percent less likely to describe their findings with such words.
Male authors deployed the word “novel” 60 percent more often than their female counterparts. “Unique” was used 44 percent more often by male authors, and “promising” was used 72 percent more often by male authors.
“If you wanted to see if this is really causal, you take a whole bunch of women and give them this writing treatment that says: If you want to improve outcomes for your paper, use these adjectives as opposed to these adjectives — you need to sell it harder,” said Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas who was not involved in the work. “I think the fundamental question is: Are these word choices innate, or are they being influenced by the editorial process or the culture?
Lerchenmueller admits the study can’t pinpoint why or when these differences arise. His team tried to rule out obvious alternative explanations, by making sure they weren’t simply focusing on words that were commonly used in particular fields of study or specific journals. But other questions remain: Are women submitting papers that use the words less frequently? Or do women face different editorial feedback when their papers are under review?
An earlier study of economists, “Publishing While Female,” found that women faced higher editorial standards: “Their manuscripts are subject to greater scrutiny, spend longer under review and women, in turn, respond by conforming to those standards,” wrote Erin Hengel, an economist at the University of Liverpool.
“The cost to women of publishing a paper is much higher than it is for men: Female authors spend three to six months longer under review,” Hengel reported.
Another study found evidence that communication style matters in grant proposals, even when reviewers do not know the identity of the scientist. Researchers examined grant proposals submitted to the Gates Foundation and found that reviewers were more likely to give a favorable score to grants submitted by male researchers. That study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, found that the difference could be explained by different communication styles: Men were more likely to write proposals using broad words, such as “tool,” “therapy,” “determine,” and “control,” while women were more likely to use narrower and more technical words, such as “malaria,” “brain,” “infant” or “contraceptive.” Generally, reviewers preferred proposals with broad language. The study further showed that the reviewers’ bias was fundamentally wrong: Those projects described with broad language were less scientifically productive.
Julian Kolev, an economist in the department of strategy entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, led the Gates Foundation analysis and said it will be important to identify the consequences of these differences in communication.
“There’s nothing wrong with communicating differently — different people having a different style of communication,” Kolev said. “Our own paper just emphasizes these reviewers who are taken in by broad language give high scores to proposals that don’t generate a lot of scientific value in the long term.”
Women face bias throughout their careers, abundant research has shown. A study of entrepreneurial pitches showed that when participants watched a video pitch with the same script read by either a male or female voice, most favored the man. Another study found that men were more likely than women to give colloquium talks that can burnish academics’ reputations and provide networking opportunities at top colleges and universities, even after controlling for the gender makeup of faculty in different fields and ruling out that women were declining invitations more often than men. A study of self-promotion among classical musicians in London and Berlin found that many women were hesitant to promote their own work because “it was associated with pushy behavior that conflicts with normative expectations that women are modest.”
One solution could be for women to pump up their work, bucking the years of acculturation and socialization that encouraged them to be collaborative and self-effacing. Or should men dial it down?
“Perhaps an obvious response to these findings is to encourage women to act more like men and be more positive; however, caution is warranted as this ‘fix the women’ approach lacks an understanding of the current evidence base on gender equity,” wrote Reshma Jagsi of University of Michigan and Julie Silver of Harvard Medical School in an accompanying opinion piece in BMJ. “We must fix the systems that support gender disparities.”