Commentary: Are other women a woman’s worst enemies in science?

It is clear that in science, we have a gender bias among leaders. It is my impression that most people think this is due to a combination of men and women having different priorities in life and high-ranking male professors favoring their own gender. Conversely, I have never heard anyone dare to suggest that women may be their own worst enemies in this context.

Benenson and coworkers from Emmanuel College have just published an interesting study in Current Biology on collaborations between full professors and assistant professors entitled “Rank influences human sex differences in dyadic cooperation”.

By tabulating the joint publications, they found 76 same-sex publications from male full professors, which should be compared to a random expectation of 61 such publications. By contrast they found only 14 same-sex publications from female full professors with the random expectation being 29. In other words, whereas male full professors collaborated 25% more with male assistant professors than expected, female full professors collaborated more than 50% less with female assistant professors than expected. The authors conclude:

Our results are consistent with observations suggesting that social structure takes differing forms for human males and females. Males’ tendency to interact in same-gender groups makes them more prone to cooperation with asymmetrically ranked males. In contrast, females’ tendency to restrict their same-gender interactions to equally ranked individuals make them more reluctant to cooperate with asymmetrically ranked females.

There is, in other words, a bias towards high-ranking professors of both genders to preferentially collaborate with lower-ranking male professors as opposed to lower-ranking female professors. If anything, that bias appears to be stronger in case of high-ranking female professors than high-ranking male professors.

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