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Women still publish less than men in South Africa

Image: TheSaver99 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Women’s lower output should be studied to inform equality efforts, paper argues

Women researchers in South Africa publish less than their male counterparts despite making up a larger proportion of academics in the country over the last decade and a half.

This is according to a paper published in the South African Journal of Science on 5 September by Johann Mouton, Milandré van Lill, Heidi Prozesky and Herman Redelinghuys from South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.

The paper highlights that the gap exists despite a steady, linear increase in the proportion of women publishing scientific articles in South African universities over the past 16 years.

Prozesky told Research Professional News that the discrepancy between women’s participation in research and their share of output needs to be taken into account when discussing gender inequality in academia.

“Often, only their [women’s] representation among staff is taken as an indicator of whether gender bias in academia is being reduced. We would argue that one needs to take into account research output as well,” she wrote in an email.

Global trend

In South Africa, the authors found, the proportion of women academics grew from 44.1 per cent in 2005 to 49 per cent in 2020. Over that period their share of publications remained 12-14 percentage points lower than their proportional headcount.

The data mirror a global trend where men have historically published more than women.

Prozesky says that despite plenty of research, there is still no consensus on the reasons for the gender differences in research output. She says that explanations often cited, such as childbearing, family obligations, gender discrimination and bias, are not always supported by research.

Seniority is likely to play a part, she says. As more women get into positions of power, such as full professors, their output relative to that of men is likely to grow because those positions are more research-intensive, she argues, and this would also reduce the incidence of gender discrimination and bias.

Racial disparities

South Africa also has disparities along racial lines. The contribution of Black female authors increased over the reporting period from 4 per cent of all South African-authored papers in 2005 to 18 per cent in 2020.

However, the paper found that white women were more than twice as productive in 2020 than Black women academics in terms of research outputs. Prozesky said it was “highly likely” this could be due to the latter demographic holding more junior positions.

Expecting Black women as a demographic to produce outputs that match that of other groups is unfair, she said: “Considering how long it takes to move up the ranks, the later a demographic group enters the academic workforce—and it does so always from the bottom—the more its members would still now be concentrated in the lower ranks.”

She added: “We as researchers need to work harder to collect data to enable us to disaggregate research-output by gender, race and rank.”