How a broader gender approach can improve research in STEM

More gender diversity in STEM can change the way research teams tackle tasks, eliminate blind spots and thus explore under-researched questions. In order to achieve this, the scope of gender diversity would need to be broadened – beyond a simple representation focus – a new analysis shows.

The European Union accommodates 17 million scientists and engineers, 60% of whom are men and 40% women. The gender distribution, however, is less balanced in specific research domains: hi-tech research has a 80% male to 20% female ratio for scientists and engineers. The sheer numbers prompt many stakeholders to request a fairer share. This apparently underrates the scope and potential that more gender diversity could contribute to the core mission of research: fueling innovation by initiating teams of ‘diverse problem solvers’. According to a current analysis by Nielsen, Block and Schiebinger, published in Nature Human Behaviour, (gender) diversity does not merely affect inter-personal team behavior (including problem solving), it also leads to new perspectives in the tackling of problems and entirely new questions asked. Striking examples can be found in various research fields.

Gender Diversity and Research Diversity are interlinked

Increased female participation in academic medical research in the U.S. resulted in covering previously under-researched areas and ultimately led to breakthrough findings. As similar observations were made in primatology, social science and history, researchers assumed that gender and research diversity were not shielded from one another, but interlinked. They build upon this notion by describing how four interdependent domains are all essential in order to reap the potential benefits of gender diversity in research. These domains are

  • Research teams (for cultivating positive beliefs about diversity and encourage collaboration based on expertise)
  • Broader scientific discipline (to strengthen team performance by encouraging gender integration)
  • Research organisations (for cultivating an inclusive climate, to integrate gender and sex analysis in the core curriculum and perform evaluation)
  • Societies as a whole (to develop gender norms promoting equality and to develop policies that support diversity in research)

Holistic approaches are needed

The domains are hierarchically dependent from one another. The respective research teams are only the smallest unit in the entire equation, but their work has an impact on society. Likewise, the norms and policies developed within society affect the questions researchers ask and the methods they employ. The research team shows how this framework can support three distinguished types of (gender) diversity in research:

  • diversity in research teams
  • diversity in research methods, and
  • diversity in research questions.

Realising the benefits of these types of diversity in science requires a careful management of the four interdependent domains mentioned above. More than 12 years of business case research carried out by European Diversity Research & Consulting had generated a wealth of insight supporting the notion that a multi-layered, holistic approach is required in order to realise the full potential of diversity – be it in business, research or society as a whole.



Eurostat Data on Women in Science

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Nielsen, M. W., Bloch, C. W., & Schiebinger, L. (2018). Making gender diversity work for scientific discovery and innovation. Nature Human Behaviour.