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Eastern European universities score highly in university gender ranking

The annual Leiden Ranking of institutes’ scientific performance includes a measure of gender balance for first time.

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PhD students in the biosafety Level 3 lab of Buenos Aires University

The University of Buenos Aires was among the top universities in a newly released ranking of gender diversity.Credit: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty

Universities in Eastern Europe and South America have topped a global ranking of gender diversity in research.

For the first time, the annual Leiden Ranking — which assesses universities’ scientific performance on the basis of bibliometrics — includes a gender-balance metric that calculates the proportion of women among a university’s total number of paper authors (‘authorships’).

The overall results show that women account for about 30% of authors of academic papers worldwide, which support previous findings. In the Leiden Ranking, for research published in 2014–17, European universities on average had slightly higher shares of female authors than did North American universities, and many universities in Asia ranked among the lowest, says Ludo Waltman at Leiden University in the Netherlands, whose team developed the gender indicator. The highest-ranked institute was the Medical University of Lublin in Poland, with 56% female authorship.

The dominance of South American and Eastern European institutes in the top ten (see ‘Gender ranking’) also echoes previous studies. The trend might be down to science jobs in these regions paying comparatively low wages, which might push men towards higher-paying positions in other sectors or countries, says Cassidy Sugimoto, an information scientist at Indiana University Bloomington who studies gender imbalances in research output.

Although researchers have repeatedly shown gender disparities in science, incorporating this metric into a major global ranking is “a huge step”, says Sugimoto. Universities look to indicators to set goals, so these metrics can have immediate effects on how administrators run their institutions, she says.

Source: Leiden Ranking

Name check

To create the gender metric, Waltman’s team analysed the research output of 963 universities worldwide from 2006 to 2017. They used an algorithm to assign gender to author names, and used this to determine how many of a university’s total authorships were men or women, or of unknown gender. Waltman cautions that one limitation of the study applies to Asian universities, because the algorithm is less accurate at determining gender from Asian names than from others. (The procedure did not take into account people of non-binary gender.)

Many of the institutes that perform best in the Leiden Ranking in terms of scientific impact have varied scores on the gender metric (see ‘Broad spread’). For papers published in 2014–17, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm ranked 71st, with 43% female authors; Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came 286th, with 34%; and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) was 807th, with 19%.

Source: Leiden Ranking

Overall, technical universities ranked lower than schools with a social science or a biomedical focus. That’s not surprising, Sugimoto says, because women typically make up only about 20% of researchers in physical sciences and engineering departments — less than in the social and biological sciences.

The ranking also shows that the number of female authors at universities has grown consistently over the decade from 2006–09 to 2014–17, but only by about 3%, says Waltman. 

Pervasive problems

But even after taking into account the disciplinary focus of individual institutions, some universities had particularly low shares of female authors, Sugimoto says — suggesting those institutions might have pervasive issues.

Women might be under-represented at some places partly because they joined fields more recently, says Donna Ginther, an economist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who studies bias in science funding. “You might want to look at the age of women in publications over time to see if the publication gap narrows,” she says.

Caroline Wagner, a public-policy analyst at the Ohio State University in Columbus, hopes that the gender indicator will be the first of a set of metrics that can help universities to measure their performance in gender diversity.

But she cautions that even if university administrators show interest in supporting women’s careers, female scientists face hidden obstacles that are difficult to address. For example, in almost every field, papers authored by women are cited less than those by men — and not because of the quality of their work, Wagner says. Accounting for this type of under-citation bias could be useful, she says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01642-4

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