Gender is not the biggest barrier to career success

Study paints bleak picture of disadvantage attached to ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

  • Gemma Conroy

Credit: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty

Gender is not the biggest barrier to career success

Study paints bleak picture of disadvantage attached to ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

14 June 2019

Gemma Conroy

Hinterhaus Productions/Getty

Gender inequality has been the hot topic in debates about inclusion and diversity in the scientific research workforce, but a new study suggests that ethnicity and socioeconomic status are even bigger hurdles to career success. A reluctance to talk about it could be part of the problem, the researchers argue.

Disease ecologist Klara Wanelik and her team at the University of Liverpool in the UK surveyed 205 early career researchers from around the world, to assess how their characteristics of age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability and socioeconomic background impacted on their career progress.

The participants were also asked to report on barriers they had faced and whether they felt they had overcome them.

Invisible obstacles

In a linked quantitative analysis, the team investigated how the participants’ characteristics were linked to various measures of advancement over the first 10 years post-PhD, such as publication record and job or grant application success.

While gender was reported as a barrier in 72% of the responses in the survey component of thed study, the quantitative analysis showed that it was ethnicity and socioeconomic background that had the most detrimental impact on career progression.

According to Wanelik, the mismatch between the surveyed responses and the results of the quantitative analysis may have been because respondents felt more comfortable discussing gender than their socioeconomic and ethnic background.

“There is a widespread narrative with regards to women in science, but ethnicity and socioeconomic status continue to be sensitive topics,” says Wanelik.

The study, published on the pre-print server, bioRxiv, revealed that Hispanic-Latino, black, Asian and minority ethnic academics have published one less paper by the time they complete their PhD than white candidates. Similarly, respondents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds produced slightly fewer publications than more privileged researchers.

These disparities could be due to a lack of role models, poor visibility in professional networks, and a feeling of not ‘fitting in’, according to Wanelik. She said such factors might make it more difficult for less privileged people and ethnic minorities to be invited as co-authors.


Left behind

A sparse publication record can have knock-on effects further down the line, the analysis confirmed.

The more papers respondents had published at the end of their PhD, the fewer applications they made before landing a postdoctoral role. Participants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were also more likely to pick up contracts that involved a combination of teaching and research rather than the research-only appointments, which are often seen as more desirable.


Around one-third of the respondents said that they had left an academic institution because of the hurdles they faced.

“In reality, the picture is likely to be even bleaker, as we were unable to capture responses from many people who had already left their institution,” says Wanelik.

“We hope that these findings stimulate more discussion to ensure that retention in the academic pipeline is inclusive to all.”

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