First authorship by women in a German medical journal

The German medical journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt did an analysis of the percentage of female first authors over the last 50 years. The number was 0-4% as recently as 25 years ago, but there has been a yearly increase to 18% last year (see this figure), both for submitted and accepted manuscripts. This number corresponds to the percentage of female senior faculty in Germany, but 64% of students starting to study medicine last year were women. A similar increase – although to higher numbers – has been seen in biology (see this study).

These numbers seem to indicate that women are neither less likely nor more likely to have a manuscript accepted. Unless you assume that women are more often denied first authorship than men. But I was surprised to learn how little progress had been made between 1957 and 1982. This study of female first and senior authorship in American medical journals probably gives the explanation. The numbers of female medical students didn't start to rise until the 1970s, and they probably started to write their first papers about ten years later. Which would mean that in another 25 years female first and senior authors in medical journals should be as common as their male colleagues. Isn't that a bit long in the future?

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7 Responses to First authorship by women in a German medical journal

  1. Sabine Hossenfelder says:

    Possibly referees just don’t notice the gender of authors. Many reports I receive refer to ‘the author’ as ‘he’ (an inaccuracy which easily could have been avoided by doing as much as googling my name and looking at the photo on my website).

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    Thanks for this – “we found this trend in evolution and ecology”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/boboh/2008/05/03/gender-differences-got-more-data, and I had been wondering if it was more general.
    I’d be curious to see what the results would be with last author: there should be a lag, but would it be about as long as the time someone works as a post-doc?

  3. Martin Fenner says:

    Bob, I should read your blog more carefully…
    What I don’t know, and this might be different depending on the discipline, whether an increase in female students always translates into a proportional increase in senior faculty (and hence last authors) some 25 years later. Senior authorship by women is already common in medical specialities with a large proportion of women, e.g. pediatrics (“38% of senior authors in 2004 were women”:http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content-nw/full/355/3/281/T1 in the _Journal of Pediatrics_).

  4. Mike Fowler says:

    I have a feeling there will be a further lag before women are as equally represented in senior faculty as men, or as the proportions who enter a subject as undergraduates – although I think there is evidence that there is a higher drop out rate of females than males in academia, please correct me if I’m wrong!
    The delay arises as cohorts don’t pass smoothly up the academic ladder. Someone who achieves prof. status in their 30s or 40s can easily hang around for 30 years in that position (this being a higher proportion of males currently), with no chance for younger cohorts to displace them and reflect the current gender proportions further down the slippery academic ladder.
    (*Competing interests statement* I am a male :)

  5. Anna Kushnir says:

    Very interesting post, Martin. We’ve been having a discussion of similar issues following a post about “Title IX for women in science”:http://network.nature.com/forums/naturejobs/2081. One of the commenters mentioned that perhaps women need a chance to catch up to men following the changes that have already been implemented in academia, much like what Mike is saying above. If that’s the case, the projected time to reaching gender equality in academia is rather discouraging.

  6. Martin Fenner says:

    We have seen a surprising change in academic medicine in Germany the last 2-3 years. It has become rather difficult to fill all training positions that are available after medical school (for reasons that are material for a different discussion). One positive side effect of this situation is that part-time positions are now much easier to obtain, and that our university is trying to become more family-friendly. I have to confess that I have seen very few examples of men taking a part-time job or staying at home for a year. But because of this situation I’m confident that the numbers of female faculty in academic medicine will be very different in 5-10 years.
    Christopher Baethge, the author of the article mentioned above, reminded me of another information hidden in “figure 3″:http://www.aerzteblatt.de/int/bild.asp?id=24382: the percentage of women applying for faculty positions is exactly the same as the percentage of women succeeding in obtaining that position. At least in German academic medicine there appears to be no bias for or against women at that step in the career path.

  7. Matthew Brown says:

    For all sciences, the fraction of scientists who are women decreases as you go up in the hierarchy. It’s slightly different for different fields, but it’s REALLY bad in physics. WHY!
    What’s also very surprising is that this is happening in a profession that values objectivity so highly.
    Just this week, Professor Meg Urry at Yale was interviewed about this exact issue. The “interview can be found here.”:http://www.scientificblogging.com/scientific_notation/women_in_science_professor_meg_urry_on_why_there_are_so_few_women_in_physics This is highly worth reading, but more than anything I recommend listening to the whole audio recording. She talks about a lot of the hypotheses to explain some reasons for gender inequality in science, and refers to some interesting psychological research. It turns out professors are doing lot to perpetuate the problem!
    One of the things she suggests is that “the more elitist the field, the fewer the women.”
    She also explains that part of the problem may be that women don’t know how to “play the game.” Let’s be honest…science is a lot about connections and funding and fellowships and the kinds of things where if you don’t know the right people on funding committees or faculty, etc, you can’t succeed. She says that women may not have as easy access to these things as men, and as a result they need to go out and proactively seek these conduits.