Gender parity in computer science could take 280 years

Progress slow in discipline finds meta-analysis of 10 million STEMM papers

It will take close to three centuries for gender parity to be achieved among academics working in computer science unless action is taken to fix the imbalance, according to new research from the University of Melbourne.

The meta-study – The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? – estimated the gender of 36 million authors from more than 100 countries publishing some 10 million papers in around 6000 journals, covering the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM) disciplines over the last 15 years.

Analysis of the data – made easier thanks to the creation of a publically accessible web-app – found that computer science had the lowest number of published female authors, except for quantitative finance. It also had one of the slowest rates of change in its gender make-up over the years.

“Despite recent progress, the gender gap appears likely to persist for generations, particularly in surgery, computer science, physics, and maths,” wrote Luke Holman, Devi Stuart-Fox and Cindy Hauser from the university’s School of BioSciences.

“We conclude that many research specialties [like computer science] will not reach gender parity this century, given present-day rates of increase in the number of women authors,” they added in the paper, published in PLOS Biology.

Across all STEMM subjects, the researchers suggest a number of causes of the gender disparity, including; ‘demographic inertia’, that is the fact the number of graduates in the subjects in the past was lower, hence the present shortage of senior researchers; the ‘leaky pipeline’ of STEMM careers with more women leaving at each stage; and that women progress in their academic careers more slowly due to challenges inside and outside the workplace.

The study also suggests that prestigious journals were less likely to publish female authors, and that female authors may feel discouraged from submitting papers to them.

It was also found that wealthy countries – notably Japan, Germany, and Switzerland – had fewer women authors than poorer ones. Australia sat close to the global average.

Promisingly, many STEMM disciplines were found to already be close to having equal numbers of men and women authors, and many – such as veterinary medicine, obstetrics and medicine – were making far swifter progress towards parity. No male-biased disciplines displayed a clear decline in the number of women authors.

However, the researchers add that “novel interventions” would be necessary if progress is to be made in strongly gender-biased disciplines.

“There is evidence that teams of diverse thinkers are better at solving problems than non-diverse teams, as well as evidence that scientists’ personal beliefs and experiences shape the direction, focus and conclusions of their research,” Holman wrote.

“As well as simply being the ethical thing to do, closing the gender gap in STEMM could help scientific progress,” he added.

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