Teamwork makes the dream work, or so the old leadership bromide would have us believe. The catch is that all members of said team deserve credit for playing their part. However, a new study from a Harvard researcher indicates that in group work—as in pay, leadership, board representation, and other areas—there’s an inequity between women and men.
The findings by Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate in economics, are published in a paper titled Gender Differences in Recognition for Group Work. In it Sarsons suggests that women aren’t receiving fair credit for their work, particularly when they are toiling beside men.
Sarsons notes that across industries, women are not only hired at lower rates than men, but once in, are held down by the glass ceiling. She points to research that indicates a variety of reasons for the inequity, including competitiveness, confidence, and the part childbearing can play. Fast Company has reported on similar findings, including that women aren’t being groomed for leadership positions in the executive suite, and women tend to be more cautious about taking promotions.
It’s hard to prove that discrimination is working against women up for promotions in a study because there are many variables that can’t be observed. So Sarsons decided to test a different theory. She explains that men and women working together in teams offers a snapshot into biases that affect women’s careers. Sarsons notes that teams give an employer "a noisy signal of each worker’s ability and he must make a judgment call as to who put in the most effort." Unfortunately, she argues, the cacophony doesn’t help women get credit for their individual voice.
She tested her theory within academia, where she is experiencing the gender gap. One easy place to see if she was right is in the realm of published papers. Research findings are often coauthored, often to the detriment of the women contributing to them. "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," she told , especially when authors are traditionally listed in alphabetical order regardless of their contribution.
She also took into account the academic landscape. "Women hold a small fraction of full professorships across quantitative disciplines," she writes. "Economics is no outlier." Sarsons points out that although the number of women earning doctorates has grown over time, "There has not been a corresponding increase in their representation among tenured faculty." Sarsons used data from 552 economists‘ CVs between 1975 and 2014 to illustrate the promotion gap between men and women in these groups.
Right away, a trend emerged. Although almost three-quarters (70%) of all the people in the study received full tenure at their first school, only 52% were women, while 77% were men—even though there was no significant difference in the number of papers they wrote or how often they coauthored.
As the HBR report noted:
"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."
Coauthoring shows that a woman has a 40% chance of receiving tenure, compared with 75% for a man. Even prodigious output fails to tip the balance in favor of women. The chance of getting tenure by writing another paper increased by just 5.7%. When women have the only byline on multiple papers, that gap disappears.
Unfortunately, Sarsons wasn’t able to draw a clear conclusion about why women choose to coauthor. She says there’s no evidence to suggest that women are strategic about their choice of team members, although they are more likely to partner with other women than men are.
Overall, the results suggest that women either do not know that there is a coauthor penalty and therefore do not choose coauthors strategically, or that the benefit to coauthoring is sufficiently high such that women will take the coauthor penalty to produce a better paper. Another possibility is that they do not know their own ability and therefore coauthor as they think they are low ability.
As for Sarsons, she's not taking any chances. Her footnotes on the first page of her paper thank several colleagues, but she points out: "This paper is intentionally solo-authored."