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Gender-Diverse Teams Are More Creative


The nature of creative work has changed in recent decades, becoming increasingly team-based. It is thus important to know which teams produce the most creative results. A new paper from researchers at Northwestern University examined gender composition of research teams in 45 medical subfields, as well as other sciences. Their results show that mixed-gender teams publish more novel papers. Although mixed-gender teams have higher impact on their fields than single-gender teams, men-led teams are recognized more often than women-led teams.


Scientists set out to examine the relationship between research team composition in the medical field. The goal was to be comprehensive, so the study analyzed over 6.6 million research articles by 3.2 million women and 4.4 million men published between 2000 and 2019 in more than 15,000 medical journals. The study authors were interested in gender composition of teams because of two important trends. First, there has been an increase in the number of women scholars and women now exceed the number of men in medical science training programs. And second, laboratory research shows that mixed-gender teams are better problem solvers, but can also be plagued by higher conflict.


The gender for each author of published research papers was recorded based on analysis of their first and last names using software that has been developed for different languages (e.g., English, Spanish, French, Chinese etc.). Gender was recorded as binary: man or woman, and the conclusions are thus limited to binary gender only. To double check the accuracy of such computer-based classification of gender, researchers compared the proportions of men and women in their study to information about gender based on self-report (e.g., from the Association of American Medical Colleges) and found very high overall agreement.


A mixed-gender team was defined as including both men and women. In addition to team gender composition, researchers recorded the gender of team leaders, team size, field of study (e.g., cancer research, cardiology, psychiatry etc.), novelty of research papers, and the paper’s impact.

Research papers were considered highly novel if they brought together disparate topics in a new way. This could be the case if papers build on existing research that is not commonly combined in a single paper or if they consider topics that are rarely mentioned together. This indicates that study authors make new and unconventional connections and join previous knowledge that others did not recognize as related.


Whereas novelty can be considered a measure of paper quality, its impact is a measure of how the paper is perceived by the larger field and the influence it has on others in the field. Researchers examined the impact of each paper based on annual citations and described high-impact papers as those that are among the top 5% of most cited in a particular publication year.


The big finding of the study is that mixed-gender teams are responsible for more novel papers and papers with higher impact than teams comprised only of men or women. Moreover, this is the case across subfields of study. This is a crucial finding because different subfields within medicine vary in their gender distribution. Novelty was higher for gender-mixed teams for 29 subfields, which represent 85% of published papers. And impact was higher for gender-mixed teams for 24 subfields, representing 75% of published papers.


Researchers did not only look at whether teams were mixed-gender or not, but also examined the specific proportion of men and women on the teams. The results for this measure of team composition were even more striking. As teams got closer to the 50/50 gender split, the advantage of gender-mixed teams kept increasing.


Next, researchers examined the effect of team leaders on paper success. It is customary that team leaders are either first or last on the list of authors on a research paper (depending on conventions of different subfields). This made it possible to compare women-led and men-led teams. And here, researchers found that a bias against women exists. Women-led mixed-gender teams publish papers that are more novel, but have less impact than papers published by men-led mixed-gender teams. In other words, although at least according to the criteria of novelty, women-led teams produce higher quality papers, men-led teams are regarded more highly by others in the field and rewarded by more citations.


These results would be powerful even if they only applied to medicine and its subfields. However, researchers conducted another set of analyses, this time across 19 different disciplines, such as economics, psychology, sociology, and others. This set of analyses includes 33 million authors and 26 million papers. Again, they found the same overall pattern as they observed for medicine — gender-mixed teams published papers that were more novel and had greater impact.


The big question is why are mixed-gender teams more successful. And the honest answer is that this remains unknown. Other research shows that women tend to share more information on teams and that they can provide perspectives that men do not consider. These are possible reasons for greater creativity that will have to be investigated in the future. Furthermore, it remains unclear why gender-mixed teams are underrepresented, regardless of team size. Gender-mixed teams are less common than expected despite the increase of team-based research, greater participation of women in science, and deliberate programs aiming to increase gender diversity in research. The life-saving importance of medical research is acutely clear to everyone who has lived through a pandemic. There was much media attention given to the story of Katalin Karikó, a female scientist whose research paved the way for the development of mRNA-based vaccines. Such prominent stories can create an impression of gender equality in recognition for creative research — if not historically, at least in the present. Yet, the comprehensive analyses of the last two decades of published articles across different scientific fields shows that despite higher novelty of papers published by women-led teams, their impact remains lower than for men-led teams.



References Yang, Y., Tian, T. Y., Woodruff, T. K., Jones, B. F., & Uzzi, B. (2022). Gender-diverse teams produce more novel and higher-impact scientific ideas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(36), e2200841119. https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2200841119 Lewis, T. (2021, September 15). An mRNA Pioneer Discusses How Her Work Led to the COVID Vaccines. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/an-mrna-pioneer-discusses-ho…

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