Study Says Women Don’t Get Credit When They Work With Men

Men and women working together.
Men and women working together.Photo: Sam Diephuis/Blend Images

We all remember the dreaded middle-school group project. There would be four or five people, all tasked with the same goal, but only one of them would actually do the work, and when the project was graded, everyone — no matter their level of commitment or competence — would wind up with the same grade. Well, it turns out that the miseries of underrecognized hard work on group projects persists long after middle school. Or at least it does for women.

Heather Sarsons, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, explored this phenomenon with a study in which she looked at “CVs from economists who went up for tenure between 1975 and 2014 in one of the top 30 PhD-granting universities in the United States.” She found a bias toward men in instances where men and women co-authored research papers, and found that co-authoring with men was a disability for women in their work, a phenomena she calls a “co-author penalty.”

“While women who solo-author everything 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,” she writes in the study. Sarsons assessed possible explanations but found that the penalty wasn’t determined by co-author selection (i.e., more senior men over women) or skill, but was the result of unconscious bias for male economists. Women were better off working alone or with other women in order to receive full credit.

“Many occupations require group work,” Sarsons writes. “The tech industry, for example, prides itself on collaboration. In such male-dominated fields, however, group work in which a single output is produced could sustain the leaky pipeline if employers rely on stereotypes to attribute credit.”

Just another thing to keep track of when trying to figure out the right way to lean in this time.