A microbiologist at work.
Image: East Bay AWIS.
In the wake of the Science Blogging Conference in North Carolina, which I was unable to attend due to financial reasons, The Scientist‘s blog published a piece today that asks “Do Women Blog About Science?” This article was written partially in response to the kerfuffle that was triggered last year after The Scientist asked what were their readers’ favorite life science blogs. Several women, including me, noticed that they only asked men this question so we complained about it, especially since most of the men they asked preferred other male life science blog writers. This implies an inherent bias against women, however, one cannot unequivocally demonstrate this. But one can show that there is a bias against women in science by using other means.
Since The Scientist is revisiting this issue on their blog, I decided to poke around in the primary literature a bit and, as a result, I have concluded that the general lack of female science blog writers is clearly a reflection of scientific publishing and indeed, of the scientific community in general. The fact is that female scientists do not publish as often as male scientists. Why? Some people have told me that women do not produce scientific results that are of the same high quality as those produced by men (nor do they write life science blogs as well as men, apparently) and that male reviewers can readily recognize when a woman is the lead (or sole) author of a scientific paper because “women do science differently from men” (whatever that means). Basically, science is still a very sexist community where its female practitioners publish less frequently than men at least partially because of the peer-review system that is in place. I think the commonly used single-blind peer review process is biased against papers whose lead (or sole) author is female, just as the field of science is biased against women in general.
The single-blind peer review process is when the author doesn’t know the identity of her paper’s reviewers but the reviewers do know the author’s identity. Which, when I was in grad school, led me to ask on several occasions, why do reviewers need to know the identity of the authors of the papers they review? I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to that question, but I have heard female scientists assert that gender bias plays a role when their papers and grants are reviewed, although this is difficult to confirm on an individual basis.
Despite the scientific community favoring the double-blind review method, where both the authors’ and the reviewers’ identities are concealed, this method is rarely used, except in peer-reviewed medical, psychology and economics journals. However, a group of researchers, led by Amber Budden at the University of Toronto, asked how female authors fared under these two review systems.
To do this analysis, the team compared the gender of authors published in the peer-reviewed journal, Behavioral Ecology (BE), between 1997 and 2005. BE began by using single-blind reviews but underwent an editorial change in 2001, where they initiated the double-blind review process. This editorial change provided the researchers with the unique opportunity to analyze gender variation of the authors published under the two systems in the same journal. Additionally, the team compared BE with an additional subset of ecology and evolutionary biology journals with similar impact numbers, all of which only use the single-blind review process.
The team accessed all these journals’ online tables of contents that listed authors’ first names and assigned gender to the authors as either female, male or “unknown” (when the author’s name was gender-neutral or when the author provided only an initial). The team found that after the double-blind review process was initiated in BE, papers written by women were published significantly more often than prior to this change (Figure 1);
According to the data, papers written by a female first author showed a 7.9% increase in publication rate in BE while those written by male first authors showed a proportional decrease. This increase in female authorship is three times greater than the reported increase in female graduates in the field of ecology and more closely reflects the population demographics of the field itself, which is 37% female. When the team compared these data against those collected from the other journals with similar impact factors, they found there was no corresponding change in the authors’ genders during the same period of time, further bolstering their argument.
Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, as they say. I would like to point out that this bias against women not only affects publishing scientific papers, but it also applies to the review, grading and funding of scientific grants. This gender bias could help reveal why female scientists are rarely found in more senior research positions, since obtaining those positions is at least partially dependent upon the number of grants they successfully fund and the total amount of those funds.
Instead of hand-wringing and asking “Why are there so few women in science? Why are they leaving?”, it is time for the community to begin reflecting on the behavioral data they are being confronted with. Basically, the scientific community makes it very difficult for women to remain in the sciences, and one way in which they do this is through a demonstrable bias against women in the review process. In my opinion, it would take very little effort for the scientific publishers and granting agencies to change their review policies to incorporate the double-blind process, knowing that women (and scientific progress in general) will greatly benefit.
BUDDEN, A., TREGENZA, T., AARSSEN, L., KORICHEVA, J., LEIMU, R., LORTIE, C. (2008). Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(1), 4-6. DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008.