Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers Alex James (pictured) and Michael Plank co-authored a recently published paper revealing the extent to which women are under-represented in the science field.

The data is in and the science gender gap is real, according to Te Pūnaha Matatini researchers Associate Professor Alex James and Professor Michael Plank, and Masters Student Rose Chisnell – all from the University of Canterbury.

Published in Royal Society Open Science, their research paper entitled ‘Gender and societies: a grassroots approach to women in science,’ analysed decades of research from 28 societies from four countries and spanning five scientific disciplines.

Under-representation increases with rising status within the hierarchy  

Alex James, lead author, said: “We show that as the status of a role increases so does the under-representation of women, even when you take into account the number of women who are eligible. We also show how some common practices in award selection committees will be furthering the problem and give some simple recommendations that can increase diversity.”

Funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini, this is the first study to examine the issue of sexism at the grassroots level, across such a wide breadth of science disciplines and countries.

“Our results show that the gender gap widens as you move up the academic hierarchy. Women are as likely as men to receive low status awards, but less likely to receive more prestigious awards,” said Michael Plank.

“The practice of award-winners being decided by previous recipients can help perpetuate gender bias. We conclude that, when the stakes are low, efforts to tackle gender bias have been partly successful, but when the stakes are higher, the old boys’ club still dominates.”

The research has received significant coverage online, on social media and in the New Zealand Herald.

Key findings from the paper

  • The number of women receiving prestigious awards in many scientific disciplines is disproportionately low relative to the number of senior women in the relevant field.
  • Women are underrepresented in leadership roles in scientific societies relative to the number of senior women in the relevant field.
  • As the status of the award increases, so does the underrepresentation of women.
  • Societies can improve the diversity of their award winners by improving diversity of selection panels, taking steps to avoid nomination bias, and increasing transparency of processes.

Te Pūnaha Matatini promotes diversity and equity in science

Te Pūnaha Matatini has taken a national leadership role in promoting diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in science and academia.

Our Code of ConductSponsorship Policy, and Equity, Diversity, Access, and Inclusion Policy and Guidelines have been shared widely and adapted for use by a number of national and international research organisations and professional bodies, including the Royal Society Te Apārangi.