Altman, Lawrence K. "Swedish Study Finds Sex Bias in Getting Science Jobs," New York
Times, 22 May 1997, p. B13.
Women have to publish much mare often than men to compete successfully for scientific jobs in
Sweden, a study has found.
And this problem is occurring in a country that the United Nations has recently said is "the
leading country in the world with respect to equal opportunities for men and women," write the
authors of the study, "so it is not too far-fetched to assume that gender-based discrimination may
The findings, published today in the British journal Nature are a result of the first scientific study
of sex discrimination in the awarding of a large number of research positions, sold the authors,
Dr. Christine Wenneras and Dr. Agnes Wold. The authors, from the University of Goteborg,
decided to investigate the evaluation system after they lost out in their own pursuit of jobs in
To do the study, they had to go to court to use the Swedish freedom of press act to obtain
numerical scores that were developed as scientists, in a confidential peer review system,
evaluated grant proposals, job applications and publications of other scientists. The peer
reviewsystem is a linchpin of science all over the world.
To earn the same score as a man, a woman had to publish three more papers in one of the most
prestigious general science journals (like Nature itself) or 20 more papers in the next level, which
would be a top journal in a specific field, like Radiology, the authors found.
Nature said in a news release that the "results severely undermine the credibility of the
peer-review system, not just in Sweden but elsewhere in the world."
To avoid wasting "a large pool of promising talent," the Swedish doctors urged colleagues to do
similar studies in other countries. "Scientists are supposed to be objective," Dr. Wenneras said,
and "the credibility of the academic system will be undermined in the eyes of the public if it does
not allow a scientific evaluation of its own scientific evaluation system."
In the United States, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have
undertaken revisions of grant peer review systems intended to reduce the chances of
discrimination. The National Science Foundation said that in 1996 it approved grants for about
30 percent of proposals received from women and about 29 percent of those from men.
Dr. Jaleh Dale, the president of the Association for Women in Science in Washington, said that
despite imperfections in the peer review system in the United States she would not favor opening
the confidential scores compiled by anonymous reviewers.
Dr. Wenneras said in an interview from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where she works, that she
was confident in 1994 that at least one of her group of four female friends would get a position
known as a postdoctoral fellowship in that year's competition run by the Swedish Medical
Research Council. In that year 62 men and 52 women competed for 20 fellowships.
But, Dr. Wenneras said, "we thought it was very strange that only four of the winners were
In discussions, colleagues told them that women were less productive, wrote fewer papers and
were less career oriented than men.
"Of course, this provoked us a little," Dr. Wermeras said.
So she and Dr. Wold spent their evenings and weekends searching through the computerized lists
of papers compiled by the National Library of Medicine, a Federal agency in Bethesda, Md., for
those published by each applicant. They also searched for such measures as the number of times
other scientists cited each paper through lists compiled by the Institute of Scientific Information
Dr. Wenneras said she and Dr. Wold had written two articles for a Swedish newspaper describing
the difference in treatment of men and women in science. The articles led other scientists to tell
their own stories. Dr. Wenneras said. The higher a position a person held in the Swedish
scientific world, the more skeptical they were of the findings, Dr. Wenneras said.
The Medical Research Council said that the way she and Dr. Wold examined the problem was
"oversimplified, completely wrong, and that the candidates with the highest scores got the
positions," Dr. Wenneras said
But when the two researchers asked to look at the scores so they could study a number of
correlations, the council refused, saying the scores were not official documents.
Dr. Wenneras said her colleague's husband, Lars Melchior, a Swedish archivist, knew the
documents were available to the public. Still the council refused. So they went to court. In fall
1995 a Swedish court ruled in favor of Dr. Wenneras's team and it received a Swedish
Government grant sufficient to study one year's pool of applicants.
The researchers selected the same year that they were rejected, and used six objective criteria of
scientific productivity, like total number of publications. Dr. Wenneras and Dr. Wold found that
women scored significantly lower than men of equal achievement. Members of the review
committee excused themselves from any consideration of applicants they knew or with whom
they had worked as required. But applicants who had such connections still scored better than
those who lacked them.
The Swedish Medical Research Council has not met with the authors, Dr. Wenneras said, but it is
now trying to develop more objective criteria for the peer review process and, "improvements on