Assessing the gender gap in academia

Female scientists are underrepresented in top research jobs despite performing just as well as their male colleagues, a study from Italy and Norway shows.

Leggi in italiano

Credit: DrAfter123/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images.

Gender disparities in opportunity are deeply rooted in academia, and affect countries as diverse as Italy and Norway. A comparative study published in the Journal of Informetrics shows that, in both countries, it is harder for female professors to reach the highest academic ranks than it is for their male colleagues, despite being just as productive. But it is still harder for Italian women than for Norwegian ones, most likely because of differences in welfare systems, and cultural factors.

The study analysed1 the scientific performance of Italian and Norwegian university professors, comparing gender patterns across countries, research fields and academic positions. The authors say they chose to compare the two countries because they differ widely in how family responsibilities are shared between men and women.

Using data from publicly available databases on academic staff, the authors looked at publications by 36,000 professors from 2011 to 2015, considering researchers and professors who held formal faculty positions for at least three years and with at least one publication over the period. Overall women represent 33.8% of academic staff included in the sample in Italy and 33.9% in Norway. But women in Italy are more concentrated in lower academic ranks, representing 47.2 % of assistant professors, 35.2 % of associate professors and only 18.3 % of full professors. In Norway, the corresponding figures are 41.5 %, 46.5 %, and 26.1 %, respectively.

“We designed a new indicator to better portray research productivity and not simply production over time” says Giovanni Abramo from the Institute for System Analysis and Computer Science (IASI-CNR) at the National Research Council in Rome, one of the authors. The indicator embeds both output data (the number of publications and citations) and input (number of co-authors, average yearly salary, years of experience). “In scientific research,” adds co-author Ciriaco Andrea D’Angelo from Università di Roma Tor Vergata, “usually those who have more resources, like money and time, tend to achieve better results. Indicators such as the h-index do not account for this and we wanted a more accurate one”.

According to the indicator, men outperform women overall. Their average performance is 37% higher than women’s in Italy, and 32% higher in Norway. But, the difference is mostly due to the fact that men are overrepresented in the top 10% performers, and that in both countries full professors — the group where women are least present — have the highest performance. Differences in performance tend to fade away in the remaining 90% of performers, and they even reverse when only full professors are taken into account. “As a matter of fact, performances of men and women do not differ much, except in the top performing groups,” the authors write.

The researchers also simulated how university staff should look like if academic ranks were aligned with research performance, and found that, all else being equal, there would be 9% more female full professors in Italy and 6.5% more in Norway.

“We alone cannot explain the causes of these phenomena since complex cultural and relational factors are involved. We just looked at data, but sociologists of science and gender studies experts will certainly have lot of work to do,” D’Angelo says.

For Ilenia Picardi, a researcher in sociology at Università Federico II in Naples who studies gender gaps in academia, the study’s findings confirm concerns about the fairness of the career system, and suggest that the productivity of young female researchers is particularly affected by motherhood: early stages in research career often overlap with a crucial period when women, more than men, devote much time to childcare and family.

Picardi also notes that structural and cultural factors influence research performance but often remain “unnoticed” by indicators. “In Norway, over 90% of children go to kindergarten, while only 24% of children do so in Italy”. She notes. “Different welfare states and cultural views do indeed affect research performance.” Giulia Quattrocolo, an Italian researcher who is a group leader at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, agrees. “In Norway we have longer maternity leaves and mandatory paternity leave,” she says. “Gender equality is viewed as important and work schedules are more flexible for mothers and fathers.”

Yet, it would be “extremely reductionist” if gender equality in research only accounted for motherhood, Picardi notes. “What we need is an open debate on the mechanisms responsible of gender inequalities, such as intrinsic biases in performance indicators.”


  1. 1.

    Abramo G., Aksnes D.W., D’Angelo C.A., Journal of Informetrics, 15 (2021).

Download references

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Sign up to Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing