[Image: Tom Werner/Getty Images]
Diversity in STEM fields is becoming a higher priority for institutions—and rightfully so, as research is increasingly showing its benefits. In a recent study, researchers in the United States looked at the makeup of medical research teams and found that gender balance strongly impacts research outcomes (PNAS, doi: doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2200841119). In fact, the study presented evidence that mixed-gender teams produce more novel and impactful work than same-gender teams.
Assessing gender and impact
To examine the effect of mixed-gender teams, the researchers looked at 6.6 million papers published in the medical sciences in the last 20 years.
They used an algorithm that predicts authors’ genders from their names to find the gender ratio of each paper’s author team, then calculated the impact and novelty of each paper. The novelty was identified as the degree to which a paper combined prior knowledge in a new way. Impact referred to how a paper influenced future work and was measured by the total citations of each paper.
The researchers note that an important limitation of the gender-predicting algorithm is its inability to account for nonbinary authors. Taking that and other variables into account, they say that they were still able to produce conclusive results.
They found that mixed-gender teams produced work that significantly surpassed the average in terms of novelty and impact. The study results indicated that teams with an equal or close to an equal number of men and women had the highest chance of producing novel and impactful results. Plus, mixed-gender teams of six or more members were about 10% more likely to publish novel work compared to same-gender teams and almost 15% more likely to produce a highly cited paper.
“These are interesting and important findings, not only for recognizing the contributions of women in science—and women and men working together—but also for improving science,” said Brian Uzzi, the study’s lead author and the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Maximize divergent thinking
The new study did not directly touch on why mixed-gender teams exceed same-gender teams in performance, but past work offers some insight. In particular, research suggests that men and women offer different viewpoints on questions and problems. Based on laboratory experiments, women on a team might also enhance information-sharing processes, such as turn taking.
Everyone comes from a unique background and has the potential to offer a new perspective in a research setting. But gender-balanced teams may be in an ideal position to attain a “‘Goldilocks level’ of divergent thinking balanced by communication processes that promote listening to and building off of each other’s ideas,” said Uzzi.
Yet the study also found that mixed-gender teams are significantly underrepresented in medical science. Perhaps a better understanding of the potential benefits of diversity—including improved research results—will encourage those across STEM fields to build more balanced teams.