Diverse Perspectives: The impact of Gender Diversity in Scientific Teams

27-05-2024

Multiple studies strongly suggest that collaboration in scientific teams is greatly improved by a high proportion of women in the group, and yet women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. 

This disparity has led to numerous studies, and in this article, we explore what has been discovered so far around the effects of gender diversity in scientific teams, and how women impact team interactions.

What we know

Gender diversity is often a catalyst for creativity and innovation, and numerous studies have documented that the equitable representation of genders is important for the development, process, and outcomes of scientific teams. 

How and why the proportion of women positively impacts team success is not well understood, as to date, most research only uses quantitative metrics, such as comparing team rosters and bibliometric data. Although these metrics provide a reasonable starting point, they mainly focus on the presence of women rather than their levels of integration or participation. 

To properly understand gender patterns in scientific collaborations, qualitative and mixed methods research approaches are needed that study the process of team development, and not just team outcomes. 

However, the positive effect of a gender-diverse team is thought to be at least partially explained through the benefits of group processes. Studies have found women team members fundamentally change team functioning through the way they interact. They are more democratic, tend to exhibit higher levels of social perceptiveness and promote even turn-taking in meetings. 

One limitation of all gender diversity studies though is that the teams involved may have experienced the so-called Hawthorne effect and performed differently because they were part of a research study, with a researcher regularly attending team meetings. 

Below are three examples of areas we understand can be improved by better gender diversity within scientific teams:

i) Collective intelligence

Research has pointed to positive links between gender diversity and collective problem-solving for some time now. A 2010 study found evidence of a collective intelligence (CI) factor that predicts group performance better than looking at the IQs of individual group members. A robust CI factor predicts performance and characterizes a group’s ability to work together across a diverse set of tasks. 

CI is critical to solving many scientific, business, and other problems, but groups often fail to achieve it. Gender is key in deciding CI – put simply, the higher the proportion of women on a team, the higher the CI. However, a more recent study on group performance showed that the benefits of increasing women’s representation tend to flatten at the extreme, and neither all-men nor all-women teams are the most effective in problem-solving – so a gender balance is required.

ii) Utilizing expertise

Recent research also highlights the importance of gender diversity for effectively using the expertise of each team member. A study following 60 interdisciplinary teams of more than 500 scientists and engineers across a variety of disciplines showed that women more often than men accurately recognize the expertise of fellow team members. 

Two further surveys revealed that women are more likely to emphasize educational qualifications when evaluating expertise, whereas men tend to be distracted by irrelevant cues, such as gender. By cultivating gender diversity, teams can overcome such biases and reap the full rewards of their team expertise.

iii) Innovation

Gender diversity may also spark new discoveries by broadening the viewpoints, questions, and areas addressed by researchers. 

Another recent study, this time using topic modeling – a form of computational text analysis suitable for studying content variations in large samples of professional documents – found that contributions written by female-dominated author groups typically posed different questions and engaged in different research topics than those authored by men.

Where can we go from here?

It’s not enough just to examine the numbers. In order to be truly effective, the role that women play in scientific teams should be looked at and promoted in order to yield the substantial benefits of increased gender diversity. Only when diverse teams are fully embedded and established do they begin to make a powerful contribution to innovation. 

To further harness the potential here, future research needs to broaden definitions of diversity and gender, including non-binary definitions of gender, and expand how we measure inclusivity. Then we can start to explore how a proper and robust balance of power can promote expertise within successful collaborations.

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