For research’s sake, don’t make me become a ‘Dave’

If it’s true that we live in a meritocracy, I’m starting to think that women are just really bad at medical research.

What other explanation is there for research articles written by women being cited less, the majority of research funding going to men, and fewer women being invited to speak at conferences?1,2

The most shocking statistic is that 84% of men who received grant funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council, over a 10-year period, have never worked with a woman on their team.3

The most popular first name of funded researchers was David — 51 times — with the top female name Suzanne only funded six times.3

Closer to my GP heart, this gender bias is no better.

Only two of the 13 members of the RACGP’s new Australian Journal of General Practice’s editorial board are women.

And the college’s The Good GP podcast, which interviews medical experts, features just five women among the first 38 broadcasts.

Low representation of women is usually talked down as “due to chance” — an unfortunate mischance that no one really intended to happen.

But, if we look at the mathematical formula for probability, if selections are made in a truly unbiased way, we would see more committees and events with an overrepresentation of women than those with no women representatives at all.4

And an overrepresentation of women almost never happens.

For general practice, women doing it tougher in the medical research field is a big problem.

Our profession is made up of 50% women and so it follows that more female GPs should be knocking at the door of academia. If they’re not let in, then our profession will suffer. So why are women less represented in medical research than men?

Studies continue to point to unconscious bias against women. When experiments are performed to assess bias, resumes with female names are rated lower than the same CV with a man’s name.5

Furthermore, research proposals put forward by women are assessed as worse than those by men; and, even in an online education experiment, tutors were 94% more likely to respond to Caucasian male names than all other names.6,7

Even accounting for pregnancy and childrearing, bias still plays a role in the reduced role of women in research.

You could ask why this even matters when men in research and leadership roles are doing such a great job?

It’s logical that diversity in teams leads to better research.

A male colleague of mine was at a research meeting recently when a female attendee made a suggestion that had never crossed his mind, as it didn’t fit his experience as a man.

How many new, bright ideas will be missed if we subconsciously exclude half our population?

So if you have won the chromosome lottery of life and are sitting at a table that has decision-making powers, have a look around. Are you surrounded by men?

What will the group miss with no women at the table?

I admire the men who have taken an oath to not speak on so-called ‘manels’ and instead point organisers to women with similar skills.8

And I call on all GPs to take a second to actively consider women if you’re inviting speakers, or members of committees or podcast guests. The fact that it is harder to think of a suitable woman does not mean she has less merit — it is an expected outcome of living in a world with unconscious bias.

On the flipside, if you’re a female GP and are asked to speak at an event, sit on a committee, or represent our profession — think about giving it a go.

If we don’t see or hear other women in these roles, it is hard to imagine yourself being capable. It is normal to feel vulnerable and nervous.

Just give it a go — feeling nervous has nothing to do with your merit.

At the end of 2017, the NHMRC recognised the big problem the world of medical research has with gender inequality.

As a one-off initiative, it has funded 34 extra grants for teams headed by female researchers.9

I have my fingers crossed that the NHMRC will continue to close the gender gap by reducing barriers for women.

Either that or I’ll change my name to Dave.

  1. International Affairs Blog, Challenging the gender citation gap: what journals can do, 22 August 2017
  2. The Atlantic, Women are invited to give fewer talks than men at US universities, 18 Dec 2017
  3. Deb Verhoeven,  Australian research has a ‘Darvisty’ problem,  24 Nov, 2017
  4. Conference diversity distribution calculator  
  5. PNAS, Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students, September 2012
  6. Nature, news, 26 Jan 2018
  7. Stanford CEPA, Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, 8 March 2018
  8. Huffington Post, Stop Agreeing To Be On All-Male Panels — Just Stop, 16 March 2016
  9. NHMRC media release, 6 Dec, 2017


First published on 28 March 2018 at Medical Observer (editor Jo Hartley)

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s