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Watch your language

Two studies highlight yet another set of differences between female and male researchers. One suggests that messages that link career success to ‘brilliance’ in science can discourage some women from pursuing certain career paths or education opportunities. The other finds that women are more likely than men to offer ‘honorary authorships’ to scientists who might not deserve the accolade — courtesy that risks obscuring the magnitude of their own contributions.

In the first study (L. Bian et al. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol.; 2018), researchers surveyed nearly 200 undergraduates about their interest in hypothetical internships and in studying certain university subjects. Consistently, women were less keen about the possibilities when the descriptions emphasized the importance of brilliance by asking, for example, for an “intellectual firecracker” with a “sharp, penetrating mind”. But when descriptions of the same options used language such as “great focus and determination” — highlighting the importance of hard work and dedication — women’s interest grew significantly. Conversely, men were generally more interested when descriptions emphasized intelligence over effort.

The gender difference could have real consequences for students and researchers, says lead author Lin Bian, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. “Women are not motivated to pursue fields or jobs that are perceived as requiring intellectual talent or brilliance,” she says; rather, she thinks that women are more likely to gravitate towards a field when scientists emphasize other keys to success in it, including hard work. “It’s important to de-emphasize the role of brilliance in achieving success.”

In a second study (E. A. Fong and A. W. Wilhite PLoS ONE 12, e0187394; 2017), researchers at the University of Alabama in Hunstville looked at survey responses from more than 12,000 US scholars from a wide range of disciplines. Overall, 35.5% of respondents reported giving at least one ‘honorary authorship’ to a researcher who contributed little to the paper. Women were 38% more likely than men to have felt obliged to give honorary authorships. “Female researchers”, the authors conclude, “may be less able to resist pressure to add honorary authors because women are underrepresented in faculty leadership and administrative positions in academia and lack political power.”

Nature 554, 395 (2018)



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