The case for gender-diverse research teams

Mixed-gender research teams remain significantly underrepresented in science. At the same time, male-female teams are more likely to produce new and highly cited research than same-sex teams.

Both findings are from a new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article focuses on academic medicine because its authors began writing it during COVID-19 and academic medicine is a financial giant. But when the authors conducted similar analyzes for medical subfields and other scientific fields, their results held.

“We’ve done the same analysis for every other discipline in science—we’ve done it for physics, we’ve done it for chemistry, biology, and sociology—and again we find the same fact: mixed-sex teams do better than same-sex teams,” said co-author Brian Uzzi, Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “And the more gender balanced a mixed-gender team is, the greater the impact.”

How much better? In academic medicine, for example, Uzzi and his own (mixed-gender) team found that male and female teams published papers that were up to 7 percent more recent and 15 percent more likely to be highly cited than papers published by all-male or all-female teams.

Although some previous research has compared the science performance of women and men, Uzzi said, the takeaway from this new study is, “We’re actually better together than apart.”

He continued: “When we started this, I thought, ‘What are we going to find? There will likely be very mixed results. But we weren’t sure. And when the results came out—and they were so clear and systematic—we said, “We’ve really found something.”

For the primary analysis of academic medicine, Uzi and his team considered 6.6 million articles published in about 15,000 journals worldwide over 20 years. Given the size of their data set, they used a computer algorithm to determine the gender of the scientists from their names, male or female. (For this reason, the study does not speak to gender diversity beyond men and women.)

In 2000, Uzzi and his colleagues found that about 60 percent of four-person teams included men and women. By 2019, they were 70 percent. To see if this was more or less than might be expected based on who was in science, Uzi’s team designed a model that randomly swapped male and female authors who had the same first year of publication, total number of publications and country. Based on this model, mixed-gender teams are significantly underrepresented at every team size—up to 17 percent underrepresentation.

Next, to compare the results of different-sex and same-sex teams, Uzi and his colleagues had to settle on a definition of novelty and find a way to measure it. Guided by previous research, they defined new articles as those that combine knowledge in a new way relative to existing combinations. Part of the way they measured this was to look at the journals referenced in an article and whether those pairs of journals were common or unusual.

To measure an article’s impact, the Uzzi team follows previous research that defines high-impact articles as those in the top 5 percent of citations for articles published in a given year. (They also took into account continuous impact.)

Exclusion of other factors, underlying mechanisms and warnings

Could something else explain these findings? Guided again by previous research, Uzi and his team investigated whether mixed-gender teams have different levels of experience, networks, age diversity, and international diversity characteristics compared to same-sex teams. They found that mixed-gender teams were associated with significantly greater diversity of subject matter expertise, larger network sizes, greater diversity in career age, and greater geographic diversity and internationalism, among other factors. But none of these factors, when controlled for, can explain the positive effects of gender diversity. Citation homophily, or the phenomenon of men citing men’s articles more than women’s articles and vice versa, doesn’t explain it either.

Team gender diversity is ultimately “an under-recognized but powerful correlate of new and impactful scientific findings that increases in magnitude with team gender balance,” the paper says.

why is this The paper is somewhat cautious here, saying that this is an area for future research. But Uzzi and his colleagues note that existing experimental research shows that women in a team improve information-sharing processes, such as taking turns in a conversation.

“It is also possible that women provide a perspective on research questions that men do not, and vice versa,” the report says, “or it may be that when a team has both female and male teammates, there are synergies , gender-specific teams that are more than the additivity of team processes and information typically associated with all-female and all-male teams.”

Numerous business-oriented studies have found that gender diversity makes firms more productive, but some of these studies come with caveats about context and climate. One study, for example, found that gender diversity translates into market valuation and more revenue in countries and industries where gender diversity is “normatively accepted.”

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and president of the Center for Talent Innovation, said in an email Monday that “when it comes to the impact of highly skilled women on innovation — in medical research and elsewhere — the secret sauce is sponsorship, not representation.” Citing research in her book The sponsor effect: How to become a better leader by investing in others (Harvard Business Review, 2019), Hewlett said that “when a woman’s value is recognized and invested in by a man at a senior level, he is much more likely—19 percent more likely—to find value in her ideas, to gave her a seat at the decision-making tables and funded her projects.” (Hewlett was talking about business, but her research may offer some insight into how some research teams form and operate.)

Uzi said the downside of studying a total of millions of articles is that he and his team can’t dig deep into how these teams actually work. But he said the conditions under which gender-diverse teams are most successful likely overlap with those “that make any scientific team work, which is a sense of equality and openness and acceptance of new and different ideas.”

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