do women write a disproportionate number of operations research papers?

The short answer is no, but women are making lots of progress. An article in The Chronicle [Link] summarizes a massive study on publishing and gender:

Although the percentage of female authors is still less than women’s overall representation within the full-time faculty ranks, the researchers found that the proportion has increased as more women have entered the professoriate. They also show that women cluster into certain subfields and are somewhat underrepresented in the prestigious position of first author. In the biological ­sciences, women are even more underrepresented as last author. The last name on a scientific article is typically that of the senior scholar, who is not necessarily responsible for doing most of the research or writing but who directs the lab where the experiment was based.

The study authors note that women are publishing more, but many of these papers are about subject areas that will be discounted because they are about “women’s issues.” For example, women account for 13.7% of authors on economics papers but are overrepresented on papers on economic “household decision-making,” where they account for 30% of all authors.

They found a lot of positives: women are publishing more and more. However, not all trends are good. The authors of this study also discuss subtle forms of bias that affect whose name gets on a paper and in what order:

Negotiating author order becomes crucial. But women may not be as confident and have as much experience as men with those negotiations. “If I’m writing with a man, he may be more likely to insist he be first,” Ms. Correll says. “When women negotiate in general, they are less likely to be successful. People don’t consider their requests as legitimate.” …

Gains have not been mirrored in the last-author position, which is of particular importance in the biological sciences… “The gap between women as first authors and women as last authors is actually growing, which suggests that women in scientific fields are allowed to have ideas and do most of the work on a paper, but do not yet have the big grants and labs full of students and postdocs that would establish them in the prestigious last-author position,” says Ms. Jacquet.

An interactive tool [Link] shows the fraction of journal pubs written by women in different fields. You can select the years and the type of author: any author, first author, or last author.

When choosing “any author,” I find that women were authors on:

  • 2.7% of OR papers 1970 and earlier,
  • 5.7% of OR papers 1971 – 1990, and
  • 11.8% of OR papers, 1991 – 2010.

The authors of the study note that it’s not stationary even within these timeframes: 2010 was much better for women than 1991.

The takeaway from this is that it highlights the importance of mentoring for women. The average women may need help to teach them how to negotiate authorship and publish papers that will not be discounted. To be sure, men need role models, too, and plenty of women have figured out how to master the publishing process. I know that men read this blog, and I sincerely hope that they don’t tune out when professional women’s issues are discussed.

Here’s my point: when mentoring programs are in place basically to give women a leg up, everyone will have access to mentors and will thus benefit. I know many men who could use more publishing advice and advice for dealing with “impostor syndrome” (women aren’t the only ones who feel like impostors). In short, scientific literature and blog posts about women’s issues in academia could benefit more than just the women… but only if everyone is willing to come to the table and talk about them.

Please leave your two cents in a comment.


5 responses to “do women write a disproportionate number of operations research papers?

  • Michael Trick (@miketrick)

    In operations research, due to the lack of 20 person papers, it seems there are really just two author orders: alphabetical and Ph.D. student first. Have you seen much of negotiating over author order? The only negotiations I have done is with those who wanted to put my name first: I argued that would make my other papers look bad since “T” is generally near the end. Then I picked up coauthors Yildiz, Yunes, and Zin.

    By the way, I was impressed with the depth of detail the linked-to study provided about “Operations Research”, right down to the “Traveling Salesman Problem” level.

  • Laura McLay

    @miketrick, those are good points. We don’t use the alphabetical order in OR (but I think they do in math). Here, I think that women may need to negotiate whether they get on the paper at all if their contribution is small, negotiate working on interesting ideas that are publishable, or negotiating with their PhD students and co-authors to finish their papers. The first is not a huge concern because no one career is going to be “made” based on being the fourth author on a paper. But #2 and #3 could be concerning. I should have addressed this in greater deal in my post.

  • Tallys Yunes

    In my experience publishing in OR, the choice of what order to use depends on the personal preferences of the co-authors. In some of my papers, the order is alphabetical, in others it isn’t. I know people who put a lot of weight on the order. I personally give zero importance to the order because I know many people who just do it alphabetically or put the student(s) first, followed by alphabetical order. When it becomes important to know how much of the work was done by each author (e.g. tenure cases), I think the best course of action is to ask.

  • prubin73

    I agree with Tallys. I’ve seen alphabetical, student first, senior person first, same authors taking turns, … I quit trying to infer role or contribution from author order years ago. I know that some people consider it important when voting on promotions and tenure. I also know that, within a department, the people who agree order is important don’t necessarily agree how to interpret order.

    I’m not sure it’s a good idea to try to infer contribution even when you know how the order was determined. On a recent past paper and a (hopeful) paper to be, I brought the tools and my coauthor brought the problem. No problem, no solution. No tools, no solution. So whose contribution was more important?

  • Laura McLay

    Good points. I reported the total fraction of authors (in any order) that are women. The people who did the research focused on author order in one field where the rules made a little more sense. The important point is to publish and to not let someone tell you that you’ll get tenure if you serve on department committees, etc. Pubs matter!

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