It’s no secret that men outnumber women in stereotypically male fields, especially in higher positions.
Economics is no exception.
In fact, even though “women’s representation among doctoral degree recipients has increased over time, there has not been a corresponding increase in their representation among tenured faculty,” observed Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard.
So Sarsons set out to explore whether or not there were any unaccounted biases that could explain the gender gap in academic economics.
And Sarsons found an interesting relationship which was published in a recent paper: Women who coauthored papers with other economists were far less likely to get tenure than solo authors or men.
Sarsons looked at the CVs of over 500 economists who were up for tenure between 1975 and 2014 in the top 30 PhD-granting universities. She found that only 52% of women received tenure compared with 77% of men even though there was no statistically significant difference in the number of papers produced between the sexes.
At the same time, she also noticed that women who solo-authored all of their papers had roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as men. Meanwhile, women who did more co-authoring had significantly lower chances of receiving tenure.
“While solo-authored papers send a clear signal about one’s ability, coauthored papers do not provide specific information about each contributor’s skills. I find that women incur a penalty when they co-author that men do not experience. This is most pronounced for women co-authoring with men and less pronounced the more women there are on a paper,” she wrote in the paper.
“While the results presented in this paper are correlations, they provide suggestive evidence that gender bias exists in academic promotion decisions. The bias enters when workers send unclear signals (co-authored papers) that require some judgment on the part of the employer as to which worker made the greatest contribution,” she suggested in her conclusion.
Here’s what all of that means in basic English: In group projects, the supervisor and/or employer can’t really tell who did what parts of the work, and thus what everyone’s ability actually is. So, theoretically, one could be subconsciously biased towards assuming that more (or all) of the credit belongs to the male authors.
Or, as the Harvard Business Review described it, it looks like “women do not get their fair share of credit for group work, especially when they work with men.”
By comparison, solo work leaves no doubt about who deserves the credit.
However, it’s worth pointing out that both men and women could have this sort of bias in male-oriented industries. For example, in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Sarsons noted that she’s experienced this subconscious bias herself:
“I would guess it’s unconscious bias because I have found myself sometimes, if I’ll read a paper and I haven’t looked at the author’s name and then I look and it’s a woman, I find that I’m kind of surprised. And I am a woman, so I shouldn’t be having that kind of reaction. I think when you’re in a male-dominated profession, it’s easy to have that kind of mindset.”
In the same interview, Sarsons also speculated that perhaps there might be subtle ways in which women downplayed their own contributions to the work.
Although one may be tempted to conclude that the solution is for women to solo author more papers, that’s not what Sarsons is hoping to get across: “I don’t think women should have to change their behaviour, because it’s much more fun to collaborate, and you write better papers,” she said in the interview with the Harvard Gazette.
“I hope just bringing this to light will make some people slow down when they’re making these decisions and think about whether they’re giving credit unequally based on gender or race.”
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