The gender gap matters because lead authors make key decisions on what topics to research, who to include in studies, which outcomes to examine and how to interpret the data, said lead author of the current study, Giovanni Filardo of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
It also matters because early career researchers depend on publications to advance to more senior positions, meaning the gender gap in medical journals may contribute to a gender disparity in leadership roles at universities and teaching hospitals down the line.
“A lot has been written about the `leaky pipeline’ for women in academic medicine,” Filardo said by email. “No one seems to have identified any gaping holes—such as an identifiable process excluding women from receiving research funding—that could be relatively easily and quickly fixed with a policy change.”
“Rather, the problem seems to be multiple, small, insidious leaks that are hard to pin down precisely for repair and that, at the level encountered by the individual, may seem too small or even petty to be worth drawing attention to,” Filardo added.
To explore the gender divide in published work, Filardo and colleagues analyzed authorship over two decades for six prominent journals: Annals of Internal Medicine, The BMJ, JAMA, Archives of Internal Medicine, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).
In 1994, women were lead authors on just 27% of articles in these journals, the research team reported on March 2 in The BMJ.
By 2014, women accounted for 37% of lead authors overall.
Some journals published more work led by women than others, the study also found.
The BMJ had the highest total proportion of female first authors, at 39%, while the lowest proportion was found in the NEJM, at 24%.
Although most journals increased female lead authors over time, NEJM actually had a smaller proportion by the end of the study than it did 20 years earlier.
Female lead authors also had better odds of placing non-experimental studies—such as those based on analysis of existing database information—in these prominent journals than they did of placing experimental research.
The proportion of non-experimental studies with female lead authors increased from 31% to 40% over the study period.
For experimental studies, which might include the gold-standard randomized controlled trial design, female first authors advanced from 20% to 35% over the study period.