Publish or Die: Women in Neuroscience

Are women in the field of neuroscience still under-represented? Does there exist obstacles to their getting published in top journals? According to a Nature Neuroscience editorial on the subject, the situation is looking up (for them, but not for women).

Only one in five papers published in Nature Neuroscience has a female corresponding author. This number might simply reflect the low representation of women among neuroscientists, but it could also contribute to perpetuating the problem, as high-profile publication influences hiring and promotion decisions.

In response, the journal examined whether their author's gender correlates with their chances of publication. They report that papers from female authors are sent for peer review and subsequently published in proportion to their representation among submissions. To me, this dodges the most important question: Why aren't women submitting to top journals, and therefore matching their male counterparts representation in high impact journals? (More below the fold)

While Nature Neuroscience's study certainly displayed equality at the level of their review and publication process, they essentially wash their hands of everything that comes before. They reported that 20.5% of published authors were women and 79.5% were male. As a burgeoning neuroscientist who happens to be female, I can't tell you how depressing that statistic is and I take it as my personal mission in my career to blast those numbers back into the realm of reality.

Seriously though, I have had discussions with my mentor as well as other students about the question of hiding my first name by using a gender-neutral version such as "S.A.Batts" instead of "Shelley A. Batts." When I mentioned it, I was half-joking and half-serious. To my astonishment almost everyone was in favor of publishing under S.A.Batts.

I was furious. I'm not doing it.

But the fact that the suggestion was met in this fashion reveals that the underlying gender bias that has existed in science for centuries is still there, although in a more subtle version.

In addition:

Among 940 reviewers for the journal, 152 (16.2%) were female and 788 (83.8%) were male.

Women leave the laboratory at higher rates than men throughout the world and across their careers, and the percentage of women in the top ranks is very low. In 2000, about half of European graduate students in life sciences were female, in contrast to only 10% of full professors. Similarly, in 2001, 53.9% of US graduate biology students, 37.7% of postdoctoral fellows, 34.5% of assistant professors and 15.8% of full professors were female

. 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that female faculty had lower salaries, less space and fewer resources than men with equivalent accomplishments. Psychology studies also show that when evaluating resumes, people tend to rate the accomplishments of moderately good male candidates as better than those of equivalent female candidates.

Nature Neuroscience had a great opportunity here, which was wasted. they are a very influential journal; scientists of all walks listen and read. Instead of just highlighting the gender discrepancies, and pointing out they THEY are of course doing things right, they could have come out against this bias and encouraged an end to it. While this may seem a moot point to some, taking sides against discrimination is a first great step to changing the minds and assumptions of the readers of a journal that, according to their own measures, has an 80% male readership.

Journals are the end-all-be-all of an academic career, hence the popular "Publish or Die" mantra that is grilled into students early on. A measure of a scientist is of his or her publications. Therefore the lack of first-rate publications will handicap an otherwise promising career. The real loser here is science. The discouragement that women are bound to feel throughout their careers may be just part of the experience, but it would be nice if the Science Oracles such as Nature said it shouldn't be that way.


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Among 940 reviewers for the journal, 152 (16.2%) were female and 788 (83.8%) were male.

Blink by Gladwell is discuss over scienceblog. That's somethings he pointed out in the book, he gave a exemple based on racial discrimination. Same if we don't want to discrimination psychology has shown that we're doing discrimination. I supposed that in the 83.3 there's a god part with unconsciouness biais for men's paper. Maybe trying to reach 50/50 could help a lot !

I work at a small scientific publishing house, and we've long been tormented by the predominance of male writers. We're known for badgering our editorial committees actually (we invite authors to write, rather than accepting submissions) when they pick a topic. Our production editors poke and we actively try to recruit female/minority/foreign board members to help unskew us. It is really remarkable how difficult it can be though.

So although I'm not a fan of Nature, I have to wonder if behind the scenes they are trying to recruit females too.

Not to play too much of the devil's advocate because I think the gender disparity in science is shameful, but I always considered neuroscience one of the better sciences in this regard. I was actually sort of surprised to see such a profound publishing bias.

I mean in comparison to say computer science where at Stanford there was a graduate class of 200 with perhaps 5 women, the women in biology and in neuroscience were at or near parity. Same for my MD-PhD program now.

I wonder if that observation is telling. If the younger generation has more or equal women going into the sciences than men, it is possible that the problem will take care of itself. More women do go to college than men.

On the other hand, if we are having this same conversation is say 5 or 10 years, where you have a preponderance of women in graduate school and a stark absence in the higher eschalons then we have a epidemic of exclusion.

The big question for me is not why there are less women in science at the beginning -- that does not appear to be true. The big question is why they are getting weeded out in the process. Part of it is no doubt publishing and hiring bias, but I imagine there are at least some other things.

Jake, good observations. It is quite true that the largest disparities are seen at senior faculty level so there does seem to be some female attrition. What the cause is, well your guess is as good as mine. I certainly hope you are correct that we won't have to have this conversation in 10 years.

Suzanne, I'm quite happy to see that your journal is taking an active role in righting the bias and recruiting females. Awesome! Nature could take a page out of; for as you noted, its true that perhaps they ARE doing something behind the scenes like you are. The difference is that you said something about it, and they didn't.

I'm from Brazil and I agree with you that have a kind of discrimination about women publish scintific articles, but I think Jake was absolutely right this new generation that will be graduate in a few years will be a great supremacy against the men. But today when the idea is great, doesn't matter who said, I'm tell that because i knew your blog because i saw your article about Red Bull in a brazilian website journal. I think you would like know that.

By Thales Augusto (not verified) on 28 Jun 2006 #permalink

Folks may be tired of hearing me say this, but I have been fortunate to have women account for about 80% of my trainees. Their work ethic, writing skills, and clarity of expression have exceed that of all but one man who worked in my lab. This is a good start but I agree that it will take women rising to a higher proportion of those in full professorships and key decisionmaking positions. I'm very happy to see more women on NIH study sections. However, I've seen concerns that senior women don't often support junior women in academia:……

Um, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this conversation was happening 20 years ago, according to feminists who were in graduate school at the time. Many graduate programs in neuroscience were approaching (or had achieved) gender parity in student enrollment in the mid-80's, and faculty members said, "oh look, this problem will take care of itself in another 5-10 years." It hasn't happened yet, unfortunately.