ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When you go to the movies and you're sitting there in the theater, the music starts playing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: It's hard to ignore the names that flash first on the screen - the director, the big stars. Well, in academic life, name placement matters, too. A new study reveals a gender gap in medical research publications. From KERA, Lauren Silverman explains why it matters for our health.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Getting top billing isn't just about ego. Carolyn Lam is a cardiologist based in Singapore. She says the number of times you nab that first author spot on a research paper matters for your job.
CAROLYN LAM: So it affects everything from our tenureship to promotions to ultimately, therefore, our pay. So this is our livelihood.
SILVERMAN: That's why Lam was upset when she heard about new research showing women aren't often first authors in some of the world's most prestigious medical journals. In the movie industry, the gender gap has been critiqued, but in science circles...
BRIGET DA GRACA: There was no one really monitoring what was going on in the high-impact research for a decade (laughter).
SILVERMAN: Briget da Graca with Baylor Healthcare System in Dallas co-authored the study on the gender gap.
DA GRACA: That to me was slightly mind-blowing - that we all just assumed it was rocking along fine.
SILVERMAN: Turns out the rate of women publishing wasn't rocking along just fine. In the top journals they looked at, women's names appeared first 37 percent of the time. While it's gone up over the years, recently it's declined or flattened out in some journals.
DA GRACA: Honestly, that plateauing and/or dipping down in the last five years is a little concerning to me as a woman.
SILVERMAN: Oh, and guess what? The lead author of this research on the gender gap is not a woman.
DA GRACA: Our lead author is Dr. Giovani Filardo, which...
SILVERMAN: Is a man.
DA GRACA: ...Is a man, and some people have commented on this. But it works in our favor because you can't accuse us of being a group of anti-male feminists on a rant about women being underrepresented.
SILVERMAN: And this also matters for women's health. Research shows when women are first authors, you're more likely to see women participating in studies of new drugs or therapies. It's kind of like in the movie business where female directors are more likely to cast strong female characters.
Deborah Diercks heads the department of emergency medicine at UT Southwestern. When she designs research on why women are more likely to die of heart attacks, she approaches it differently than some men.
DEBORAH DIERCKS: I think a little bit more than some of my colleagues do about outside pressures or the reasons women delay going to the hospital. Is it because they're a caretaker or because they have pressures to finish the wash, pick up the kids?
SILVERMAN: She wonders if those pressures might be the same reasons women don't get top billing as often. Another possibility is bias in the review process. Diercks says the editors making decisions about who gets published - they're often men.
DIERCKS: I do believe that it's an unconscious and definitely unintentional - but it amazes me that it's still there.
SILVERMAN: The cardiologist in Singapore, Carolyn Lam - she also thinks any bias is unintentional. Actually, she partially blames herself. The last time she was working with two male colleagues on a journal submission, they started talking about whose name should appear first. She stayed silent, and her name - it went second.
LAM: I started examining myself a bit because - why didn't I ask to be first author? And I think that sort of behavior is pervasive in many, many fields.
SILVERMAN: Then, last month, Lam was finishing up another paper to submit again with two other male doctors. Again, one of her colleagues suggested putting his name first.
LAM: I was about to, you know, just quickly shoot off an email - oh, OK, you know, as long as our data gets published. And I really caught myself this time.
SILVERMAN: She said no. This time they submitted the paper with her name first. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.
SIEGEL: And that story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, local member stations and Kaiser Health News.
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