Historical comparison of gender inequality in scientific careers across countries and disciplines

Junming Huang, Alexander J. Gates, Roberta Sinatra, and Albert-László Barabási

Research highlights significant gender disparities in academic STEM careers. Surprisingly, these gaps have grown over the last 60 years, despite more women entering academia. However, when comparing individuals with the same career length, men and women exhibit similar annual publication rates and impact. This suggests that career duration and dropouts are key factors contributing to gender differences. This understanding can reshape discussions on supporting women in academia, benefiting institutions and policymakers.


Gender inequality is prevalent in academia. Among the 851 Nobel Prize winners in natural sciences, only 48 have been women. Additionally, research from the US National Institute of Health reveals that female scientists often receive smaller research grants than their male counterparts and earn less. We aim to quantify this inequality and investigate its underlying causes.

Numerous pieces of evidence point to gender disparities in academia, with women frequently underrepresented in various scientific fields, publishing fewer articles, and receiving fewer citations. In this study, we comprehensively examine gender disparities by analyzing the publishing careers of over 1.5 million authors, spanning 83 countries and 13 disciplines from 1955 to 2010. The number of authors publishing papers each year consistently reveals a gender gap, with more men than women contributing. In 1955, only 12% of scientists were women, but by 2005, that number had increased to 35%. While there has been improvement, women have historically been underrepresented in science, and this underrepresentation persists today.

Similar gender gaps are evident in the number of male and female scientists across various disciplines and countries. In most nations, male scientists outnumber their female counterparts. However, the magnitude of this difference varies. Some countries and fields exhibit substantial gaps, such as mathematics and physics in the United States, while others, like Argentina, show smaller disparities.

Explanation with counterfactual analysis

Rather than comparing all men to all women, we delve deeper by assessing individual success using two straightforward metrics: the total number of scientific papers published and the frequency with which their work is cited by other scientists. Typically, scientists with more publications and citations are considered more esteemed and respected in the scientific community.

In our dataset, the average individual man tends to publish more scientific papers and receive more citations than an average woman. This pattern holds true across different countries, fields, and institutions. Moreover, this gender difference is especially noticeable among high-performing scientists, where men enjoy an even greater advantage in both publications and citations.

We also observe two consistent trends: men and women publish at a similar rate each year, and their career impact is comparable when they produce the same amount of work. The primary driver behind the gender gap in academic careers appears men having longer duration in academia. In fields such as biology and Germany, where men have a significant advantage in career length, they also exhibit a greater productivity advantage. Conversely, in disciplines like applied physics and Colombia, where career lengths for men and women are similar, total productivity tends to be more balanced. This pattern holds true across nearly all scientific fields and countries.

The gender gap in career length is rooted in the dropout rate: female scientists consistently face a higher likelihood of ceasing publication at every career stage, from graduate student to Ph.D., postdoc, and tenured professor. Even after controlling for factors like publications, citations, and academic age, women have a 2% higher dropout rate compared to men.

This higher dropout rate among female scientists is not due to their underperformance. On the contrary, it is the dropout rate that contributes to the gender gap in academic performance. A counterfactual analysis reveals that closing the gap in dropout rate significantly reduces gender differences in publications. Additionally, when we simulate men and women publishing the same number of papers, their citations become equal. In a word, the gender differences in dropout rates explains a main part of the gender differences in publications, which, in turn, almost entirely account for gender differences in citations.


In a nutshell, women in academia are outnumbered by men and tend to have fewer published papers and citations. This gap is consistent across different fields, countries, and time periods. But there are two things that don't differ between men and women: how many papers they publish each year and how often their work gets cited. The primary reason for the gender gap in academic success is that women are more likely to leave academia. This isn't because they're less capable; it's just that they face more challenges that make them leave. If we can create a fair and supportive environment where men and women have an equal chance to stay and succeed, women can achieve just as much as men in academia.