May 16, 2018

The ‘One-and-a-Half Bind’ for Minority Women in Bioscience

A new study measures a clear disadvantage due to race, gender and ethnicity.

Many studies have shown that both minority scientists and women scientists face disadvantages in reaching the highest levels of their careers. It would then make sense that minority women would face a “double bind” that would particularly disadvantage them.

A new article co-authored by University at Albany Associate Professor Gerald Marschke of Economics suggests that what more accurately exists for minority women researchers in the biosciences is a “one-and-a-half bind” — a worse situation than other groups in research, but less than the sum of the disadvantage of being black or Hispanic and of being a woman.

Marschke, co-author Bruce Weinberg of Ohio State University and UAlbany graduate students Allison Nunez and Huifeng Yu used a massive database of scientific articles to produce their study, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and National Bureau of Economic Research, and appears in this month’s issue of the American Economic Association’s AEA Papers and Proceedings.

Marschke noted that the findings are particularly timely now, since “the underrepresentation of women and minorities is a huge concern to policymakers and is the focus of many commissions and initiatives.”

The researchers used an innovative method to overcome the small number of minorities and women in some bioscience careers: they looked at the journals where these scientists publish their results, and where the last author listed on an article is often the principal investigator, who garners the highest level of prestige. “Being last author is the height of a research career in bioscience, implying independence, leadership and stature,” said Marschke.

The researchers compared how many minorities and women were listed as last author on papers compared to white men. Computer software categorized author names by race, ethnicity and gender and also identified individual authors so that the researchers could follow how scientists’ authorship position on papers changed over the course of their careers.

Considering 486,644 articles with two to nine authors published in medical journals by U.S. scientists between 1946 and 2009, the project’s results showed that the probability of being a last author increased from 18 percent during the first four years of a scientist’s career to 37 percent after 25 and up to 29 years. Black scientists were substantially less likely to be last authors compared to white men in their careers, with the gap remaining 6 points at 25-29 years. The movement of women and Hispanics into last authorship was even slower, said Marschke, with a gap of 10 percentage points after 25 years in their career.

Marschke noted that women and minorities often have fewer publications than their white male co-authors, and controlling for these differences can account for some of the gaps with white men. “But even after controlling for these publication differences, you still see these last authorship gaps.”

On the other hand, the “double bind” effect was not as serious as the researchers expected. One analysis found that blacks were 0.4 percentage points less likely than white men to be the last author and women were about 4 percentage points less likely to be listed last. Given that, said Weinberg, it would have been reasonable to assume that the penalty for black women would be at least the sum of these two disadvantages, or 4.4 percent or more. But in fact, the findings showed black women were about 3.5 percentage points less likely than white men to receive the last authorship position. A similar result was found for Hispanic women.

“Our expectation, based on research that has been done on intersectionality, was that, if anything, the penalties of being a woman and being a minority could have compounded each other, and their position would have been even worse,” said Weinberg.

Marschke added, “Women who are minorities may feel isolated by their minority status but unlike minority men, face the strain of balancing careers and families, similar to white women. But, unlike white women, they also have to uphold their roles as women within their culture.”

Weinberg and Marschke now are investigating the reasons behind these findings, including how factors such as the number of people on a research team and sources of funding may affect how women and minorities fare.