Women Get Less Credit When Working in Teams with Men

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Business people working together at desktop computer
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Oh, how simply wonderful it is to be a lady sometimes, and the Harvard Business Review is here this week with another reason why. Heather Sarsons, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in economics, has found evidence that — in her field, at least — women seem to get less credit when working in teams, particularly when those teams are made up of men. How neat! Let’s talk this through.

As HBR reports, Sarsons was curious about what happens when economists co-author papers. What happens to the authors’ careers after publication? Who is more likely to be promoted, and is there any correlation between who subsequently gets tenure and co-authorship versus single authorship? “In economics, people often talk about it being dangerous for grad students to coauthor with professors because people assume the professor did all of the work,” Sarsons told writer Nicole Torres. This is perhaps especially a problem in her world of economics papers, where, unlike in other academic disciplines, authorship is listed in alphabetical order, not in order of who did the most work. “We thought that bias might hurt people when it’s not really clear who did what on a project,” Sarsons continued.

Torres breaks down the study methodology:

Sarsons looked at the CVs of 552 economists who went up for tenure between 1975 and 2014 in one of the top 30 PhD-granting universities in the United States. She coded where and when they received their PhD, their employment and publication history, their fields, and whether they received tenure.

And Sarsons’s results:

Women who solo-author all their papers have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man; women who coauthor most of their work have a significantly lower probability of receiving tenure, even after controlling for things like productivity differences, school, year of tenure, field, and coauthor selection. … [A] woman has a 40% chance of receiving tenure, while a man has about a 75% chance. This gap shrinks as women solo-author more papers. Once they have only solo-authored papers, the probability for receiving tenure is basically the same for men and women.

It’s a finding that’s backed up by past research on what happens when women and men work together. Previous studies have, for example, shown that when evaluating the work of a group, people tend to value the men’s contributions over the women’s; additionally, researchers have suggested that women themselves tend to take less credit when working with men than they do when working with other women.

Sarsons’s paper has not yet been peer-reviewed, so these results should be considered preliminary at this point. But you can read it online if you like — you’ll notice, incidentally, that only her name appears at the top.