Prominent female scientists struggle to retain their edge

Tracking the careers of leading scientists reveals maintaining greatness is harder for women in Italy.

11 January 2017

Anthea Lacchia

Matej Kastellic / Alamy Stock Photo

For female scientists, shattering the glass ceiling is often difficult. But for those who do reach a high-status, clinging to the upper echelons can be even harder, a new study by Italian researchers has found.

The study, published in Scientometrics, analysed bibliographic data of Italian professors in hard sciences to examine how many of the country’s most productive and cited researchers maintained this performance over a 12-year period. The top scientists were the 10% with the most publications and citations between 2001 and 2012, based on data from the Thomson-Reuters Italian National Citation Report.

The authors, led by Giovanni Abramo from the National Research Council of Italy's Laboratory for Studies in Research Evaluation in Rome, found more than one third (35%) of Italy's 2883 top scientists from 2001 to 2004 maintained their status over the 12-year period.

But when the researchers looked at gender trends, they found women did not maintain this status as frequently as men. While 16% of all leading scientists between 2001 and 2004 were female, just over a quarter maintained their status from 2001 to 2012. In contrast, more than a third of leading male scientists maintained their status during the same period.

The percentage of professors who maintained their top performance varied between subject areas. For example, almost half the top-ranking biologists, male or female, retained their status over 12-years, compared to fewer than a third of mathematicians and computer scientists.

Co-author Ciriaco Andrea D'Angelo, also from the Laboratory for Studies in Research Evaluation, said the differences may relate to publication rates in different subjects. In mathematics, the time it takes for a piece of research to be ready for publication is generally greater than for the life sciences.

Italy's leaky pipeline

Abramo says the study’s result may reflect the high expectations placed on scientists in senior positions, which may conflict with home life demands. “To be at the highest level in science, you need to invest notable levels of time, energy and concentration. External factors connected to productivity, such as maternity leave, impact on women more than men, especially at the top level,'’ he said. “This is our interpretation.'’

In Italy, women are underrepresented in top positions in academia, according to the EU-funded GARCIA project, completed in 2016, that mapped the leaky-pipeline phenomenon in different countries. Gender inequality in academia also mirrors the country’s poor overall performance in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report, says Bernard Fusulier, professor of sociology at University of Louvain, Belgium, and one of the scientists who worked on the GARCIA project. "In the Italian academic sector, there remains a very thick glass ceiling and slow career progression for women," he says.

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