Gender-diverse teams produce more innovative and impactful research, according to an in-depth study of 20 years of medical sciences research papers. The rigorous requirements for quality in this field implies that gender diversity would have an equally beneficial impact on the quality of team performance in other fields.
An analysis of 6.6 million papers related to the medical sciences published between 2000 and 2021 showed that the proportion of gender-diverse teams involved in medical research is growing steadily for all team sizes. The gender diversity of research teams of four members, for example, increased by 10% in that period (from 60% in 2000 to 70% in 2019).
The study shows, however, that there is still room for progress. The number of gender-diverse teams publishing research was underrepresented in all team sizes, in some cases by as much as 17%, according to the analysis. That is, the researchers’ statistical modelling showed that depending on the team size, up to nearly 1/5th of the same-gender teams would have been gender-mixed had team members been assigned without attention to gender.
The study’s insight into the quality of the research from mixed gender teams is particularly interesting. According to the analysis, the research published by mixed-gender teams was more novel and impactful than the research published by same-gender teams of the same size. The novelty measure, which indicates how much a paper combines past knowledge in new ways, was based on atypical combination of references. That is, if two references not normally seen in the same paper were used, the paper was deemed more novel than a paper in which its references are often seen together. The impact measure, which indicates how much a paper influences future work, was based on how many times the paper was cited by other researchers. Specifically, papers who reached the top 5% of citations in a given year were considered impactful.
The study also established a link between gender balance and quality. The greater the gender balance—the more closely the teams were evenly distributed between men and women members—the more novel and impactful the research. The researchers recognized that other factors might explain the success, in terms of novelty and impact, of gender-diverse team publications. Analysing the professional and personal background and demographics of the authors, the researchers found that mixed-gender teams had greater diversity in expertise, career stage, and geographic background—which could explain, but only partly, the high level of novelty and impact of gender-diverse teams’ research.
Using medical scientific papers for the context of their study, the researchers’ in-depth analysis of the 6.6 million papers’ authors supports the contention that gender diversity adds to a team’s innovativeness and performance. The study further shows the importance of gender balance, indicating that token diversity is not only cynical but also often unproductive.
Although it is focused on one professional domain, given the hard, objective requirements of research in this domain, the implications of these results can be applied to organizations and companies in other fields—as in product development, for example.
The authors of this study do not intend to overstate the role of gender diversity in team performance. Indeed, they explored the influence of other factors, such as diversity of expertise and career stage, that could have contributed to the novelty and impact of the research in question. It is possible and plausible, however, that gender diversity could have led to the diversity of expertise and career stage and even geographic background on many of these teams. And it cannot be ignored that the key term in all of these factors is diversity. Creating homogeneous teams, it can be argued, increases the chances of less-optimal performance.
Yang Yang’s profile at Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
Tanya Tian’s profile at New York University Shanghai, New York University, Shanghai
Teresa Woodruff’s profile at Michigan State University
Benjamin Jones’ profile at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
Brian Uzzi’s profile at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University
Gender-diverse teams produce more novel and higher-impact scientific ideas. Yang Yang, Tanya Y. Tian, Teresa K. Woodruff, Benjamin F. Jones, Brian Uzzy. PNAS (September 6, 2022). https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2200841119
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