Wednesday 31 July 2019 4:01 am

A gender equality lesson for the new cabinet from the world of academia

There has been much discussion on the gender and ethnic composition of Boris Johnson’s cabinet.

The Channel 4 Fact Check site calculates that 33 MPs are entitled to attend cabinet. Of these, six – 18 per cent – are from an ethnic minority background. 

According to the 2011 Census, 14 per cent of the UK population were not white, potentially making the Boris cabinet more ethnically diverse than the country as a whole.

However, on gender diversity, the cabinet appears to fall short. Although it includes eight women  compared to the six under Theresa May, this is still only 24 per cent, compared to the 51 per cent of the total population who are female.


The under-representation of women at the highest levels is not only an issue in politics, of course. And a scientific paper published earlier this month on the Cornell University archive site offers an intriguing explanation for why this is.

Albert-Laslo Barabasi, one of the world’s leading experts on the science of networks, and his colleagues examine gender inequality in scientific careers, across both disciplines and countries. 

The team investigates the publication records of more than 1.5m academics since the 1950s. And the work is of considerable practical relevance: publication is a key way by which academics get promoted.

The paper’s main focus is on the so-called stem disciplines – science, technology, engineering and maths – where gender inequalities are the most marked. For example, in physics only 15 per cent of all active authors are female.

Just as important are the persistent productivity and impact differences between the genders. In the stem subjects, on average male scientists publish 13.2 papers during their careers, while female authors publish only 9.6.

The differences are even more marked when looking at quality as well as quantity. The scientific importance of a paper is measured by how many other scholars cite it in their own published work. Male authors in the top 20 per cent in terms of career impact receive 36 per cent more citations than women do.

The gradual increase in the number of women in the sciences compared to 60 years ago has actually led to a widening of the productivity and impact gaps.


Yet Barabasi and his colleagues find that, even at the top level, there is no difference in the annual productivity rates and impact of male and female scientists. The gaps only arise when these are cumulated over the course of a career.  

Essentially, men and women produce work of equal quantity and quality. But men have longer research careers, and as a result get to pick up more of the plum jobs.

Significantly, the drop-out rate from active publishing is higher among women than men at every stage of their career, from post-doctoral student to professor.

From this, we can conclude that the key reason for gender inequality of outcome is not the processes by which scientists do research, but how long they keep it up for. Policy interventions must focus on retaining women in science at every stage. 

Perhaps that is something to think about in politics too, when considering the gender composition of the next cabinet.

Main image credit: Getty

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