Gender inequity at every step of publishing


I sat down to my laptop this morning and was looking forward to getting to work. But then I looked at the news.

And I saw this:

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) came out with a report last week about biases against women in the publication process. The highlights — or rather, the lowlights — are in the story in Nature about this report. It’s a one-minute read, please read it.

Now you now are aware that, in Chemistry, women are subjected to negative bias at essentially every stage of the publication process. When they submit papers, they are less likely to get accepted. Once their papers are published, they are substantially less likely to get cited.  And papers with men as corresponding authors are not citing women less. As the piece says:

“It is apparent that the gender gap manifests at every stage of the publishing process — choice of journal, editorial decisions, referees’ decisions and even citations,” says David Smith, a chemist at the University of York, UK, who is a member of the RSC’s inclusion and diversity committee. “This suggests something is systematically wrong.”

Yes, something is systematically wrong.

I’ve long seen the depth and breadth of gender harassment and bias problem in Chemistry. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this isn’t a problem in every STE field. In my own field, you might recall, it wasn’t that long ago that a list of “100 articles that every ecologist should read” was published in a major journal, and it only featured only two papers with women authors, and they were at the bottom of the list. Recent studies in journals in this field suggest the gender bias in publishing may not be as egregious, but homophily is still rampant in biology, with men favoring men, and the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles perpetuates major biases.

This finding from the RSC should not come as a surprise. But it brought to mind a conversation that I once had with a friend.

This friend is a junior scientist who was telling me about an encouraging conversation that she had with her department chair. The issue of gender equity issues came up, and the chair essentially asked, “So, we’re making a lot of progress on this front, so we’re okay, right?” And she quickly told him something along the lines of “No, we are not okay at all, there are still huge problems,” and then sketched out the depth of the issue. He took this feedback seriously, and then asked, “What should I do? What steps should I be taking as chair to make things better? Please let me know” And she provided him with some feedback.

She was telling me this story as an encouraging sign, about how a person with authority to make change happens was ready to listen and open to the idea of making changes. I, on the other hand, found the story to be utterly depressing. Because it started out with us being in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nineteen, and this guy was initially oblivious to the problem that’s in our faces every day. And, then, instead of choosing to do the work to educate himself about the scope of the issue, and what to do, he places the burden on the junior scientists who fall under his authority to do the labor. What he needs to do is take the time to educate himself, and then learn about effective practices that establish a more equitable environment.

Fixing the massive legacy of gender inequities means that people with authority have to go beyond willingness to change. They need to learn the specific nature of the problems at hand, and then proactively lead with interventions to make change happen. Simply working to remove implicit biases is woefully inadequate. If the standard that we hold our leaders to is to be a good people who are willing to make changes, then we are not going to get there. We need to make sure our leaders are driven to make change and treat equity as a priority. Because a modest interest in improving things isn’t even going to create gradual change, that just reinforces the status quo.

So if you’re in a position of authority, what are you going to do to work for gender equity? If you’re a guy, it’s a mistake to merely rely on the women around you for advice, and it’s doing an injustice to them to expect them to do this heavy lifting for you. Read up and listen, learn for yourself what must be done. Yes, it takes work, and a healthy professional environment is worth it.

2 thoughts on “Gender inequity at every step of publishing

  1. Surely a chair who is willing to request and listen to the advice of female colleagues is doing exactly the right thing? The alternative (‘take the time to educate himself’) implies that he should go away and decide what to do without consultation. Both steps are important, of course, but your friend’s positive response suggests that she was glad to be asked.

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