From KERA Breakthroughs:
Women are graduating from medical school in greater numbers than ever before. In 1970, women made up under 10 percent of graduates. Today, it’s nearly 50 percent. When it comes to who is getting published in top medical journals, though, women are behind. Doctors say the gender gap in medical research isn’t just an academic concern — it has implications for our health.
In academia, just like in the movies, name placement matters.
“It’s not just a matter of pride, or not just a matter of ego,” says Dr. Carolyn Lam, a cardiologist based in Singapore at the National Heart Center and Duke National University of Singapore.
She says the number of times you nab that “first author” spot on a publication matters for your job – it affects everything from tenureship to pay.
“So this is our livelihood; it’s important,” she says.
That’s why Lam was upset when she heard about new research showing women are under-represented among first authors in six of the world’s most prestigious medical journals.
Dr. Giovani Filardo and Briget da Graca, with Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, co-authored the study that appeared in the journal BMJ. They investigated the representation of women among the first authors of original research articles published in the highest-ranked general medical journals over a period of 20 years.
The results show that while the representation of women among first authors was significantly higher in 2014 than 20 years earlier, the numbers plateaued in recent years and declined in some journals.
Here’s the thing: authorship matters not just for the researchers who get a pat on the back at the office. It matters for everyone’s health, especially women’s. Just like in the movie business, when women are writers or directors, the protagonists are more likely to be women, in the science world, research shows that when women are first authors, you’re more likely to see women participating in studies of new drugs or therapies.
The same trickle-down effect applies to animal studies. Those rats, pigs and dogs being studied in labs are usually male, da Graca says. This isn’t blatant sexism, researchers say. It’s because male animals have less fluctuation in their hormones.
“That is a [fair] consideration,” da Graca says. “But when you get to the other end of it you’re going to give that pharmaceutical agent to women who have fluctuations in their hormone levels!”
In other words, you don’t want to test a drug for multiple sclerosis or HIV exclusively on men because what works for one half of the population simply might not be right for the other. And yet, male-only studies continue, and part of the problem, da Graca says, is that women aren’t leading the research.