Why Are There So Few Women in Ecology

Women scientists continue to be underrepresented in ecology and evolution research, shows a study.

AsianScientist (Jun. 21, 2022) –Women scientists and the global south continue to be underrepresented in ecology and evolution, according to a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.

In science, publishing in high-profile journals often opens doors for greater funding and promotions. It is also, generally speaking, an indicator of high-impact work. But when systemic and unconscious biases determine who gets published in top journals, and thereby is more likely to be cited by their peers, it becomes more about the geographic or social location of a scientist rather than their science.

While marginalized ethnicities and genders are generally underrepresented in all disciplines of science, a similar trend in ecology and evolution is particularly worrying. This is because global south countries are host to much of the biodiversity and local expertise is crucial to safeguarding them. Ironically, many top global north researchers often have field sites in these countries.

For this study, the authors analyzed a publicly available list of 5,419 ‘top’ researchers with an H-index of at least 30, focusing on those working in ecology and evolution. The H-index is often used as a measure of the impact of a scientist’s body of work. An H-index of 30 means that 30 of their papers have been cited at least 30 times.

The Asian Scientist Magazine spoke to Sreetama Bhadra, one of the co-authors of the study and now a postdoctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. “When this list came out, we went through it and it was all White men,” Bhadra said. “Where are the women?”

Over half of the top researchers were based in the US, the UK, or Australia. A few European countries and Canada accounted for much of the rest with 5 in every 6 researchers based in the top 12 countries. The GDP per capita of a country correlated with the number of top researchers and women representation. India was the only country with a GDP per capita lesser than $7,000 that had more than 5 top researchers. Of the 7 Indian researchers on the list, only 1 was a woman. This was also the proportion of women in the complete list of top researchers.

Latin American countries fared far better than most countries in the representation of local women scientists, but they had few top scientists in total. The researchers noted that even in countries in the global South, a large number of top researchers are often White men. This is particularly true of Asia as it is home to both rich tropical field sites and rapidly emerging economies that are attracting global talent.

In Singapore, 1 in every 2 top researchers was a White man. For Hong Kong and Indonesia, 2 in every 3 top researchers were White men. In this regard, China fares much better with 19 in every 20 top researchers being Asian, demonstrating the success of the country in backing local talent. However, there was no representation of South Asian researchers among 82 top researchers from China.

In recent years, many researchers have been moving towards open-access journals. However, these journals often have high publication fees that are cost-prohibitive to researchers from the global South. This limits the visibility of their work. Policy interventions and incentives are needed to tackle barriers to publishing.

Moreover, science journals need to have a more diverse set of editors. At the level of institutes and countries, there need to be mechanisms to better support women and scientists from marginalized communities. Bhadra stated that capacity building is the answer to improving research output for India and other global South countries.

“Bringing in scientists from the global North is not an answer. If we can encourage collaboration with scientists from the global North, that is better because it’s not that we don’t have ideas”, Bhadra added.

Source: Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, China ; Images: Shelly Liew/Asian Scientist Magazine

The paper can be found at: Who is publishing in ecology and evolution? the underrepresentation of women and the Global South

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Sachin Rawat is a freelance science writer & journalist based in Bangalore, India.

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