Gender bias?

PatBy Pat Backwell
Associate Editor, Methods in Ecology and Evolution

There is a lot of discussion about gender differences in the publication of scientific papers. A clear pattern is that men produce more papers than women. A less clear pattern is in citation rates: some studies show that females are cited less, some find no effect. Where biases are shown, many arguments are used to explain them. Two common arguments are (i) child rearing limits females from spending as much time publishing, applying for funding or advancing their careers; and (ii) self-promotion and overt competitiveness are more typically exhibited by males and are traits rewarded in the review process for publication, funding and promotion.

A paper of particular interest to me was published in 2006 (Symonds et al.). It looked at gender differences in publication outputs of Australian and British Evolutionary Biologists and Ecologists (I am an Australian behavioural ecologist). They showed that men published almost 40% more papers than women, and men were significantly more likely to win research funding; but there was no difference in the median number of citations per paper for males and females. While citation rates are not necessarily a good metric for research quality, they do crudely suggest that females produce work of equal quality to men.

This paper got me thinking about where males and females chose to publish their work. If there are differences in funding opportunities, in time spent away from work due to carer responsibilities, and lower levels of self-promotion; it is possible that this is reflected in journal choices. I would expect females to be under-represented in fast-moving fields (where any time off is a disadvantage); expensive fields; and prestigious journals (where self-promotion and overt competitiveness may play a role in how the work is ‘sold’).

I have not done a thorough study of this, but quickly looked at the gender of the first author of 50 papers (starting at the June 2014 volume and working back) published in five journals in my field. I found surprising differences. Animal Behaviour and Behavioural Ecology are good quality journals with IFs of 3.4 and 3.2. They both have a very good gender balance (50% and 42% female authors respectively). Trends in Evolution and Ecology is a prestigious, high quality review journal (IF=17) and has 30% female first authors. Evolution is a prestigious journal (IF=4.8) that publishes a wide range of papers in evolution, and has 24% female first authors. Methods in Ecology and Evolution has 22% female first authors. The differences between journals are significant (Likelihood Ratio: G = 12.94; P=0.012).

Given that females are under-represented in the scientific community (especially at later career stages) and that females generally produce fewer papers than males; we would expect an unbalanced gender bias in the number of papers by male and female authors. In the USA, 37% of the life science academic workforce is female with 41% female biology postdocs; 32% female biology assistant professors and 26% biology tenured professors (see Budden et al. 2008; Shaw & Stanton 2012). Add the lower female publication rates, and you get a very rough prediction that 20-30% of biology publications should be by female first authors.

This is roughly the rate found in TREE, Evolution and MEE, but is lower than that found in Animal Behaviour and Behavioural Ecology. Both Animal Behaviour and Behavioural Ecology are interesting because they generally use a double-blind system where reviewers do not know the name of the author; these journals have 50% and 42% female first authors. This suggests one of two things: (i) females are more likely to submit their work to these journals (possibly because of the double blind review system); or (ii) females are at a publishing advantage in these journals. The fact that these journals use double-bind review systems means that the female advantage is likely to be based solely on the quality of the work suggesting that female authors (in the field of animal behaviour/behavioural ecology) produce better quality work than males. While I would like to believe the latter, I think we should look at gender biases in submissions for these two journals before we jump to conclusions.

Why so few female first authors in MEE? Again, we can speculate, but it will take a thorough study to properly answer this question. One possibility, however, is that MEE studies are more exploratory and probably more likely to be undertaken by more experienced researchers (since they have the funding, experience and time to question older methods and try to improve them). All of these factors would disadvantage females (who are less likely to be funded or progress to higher academic levels than men).

Symonds M.R.E. et al. (2006) Gender differences in publication output: towards an unbiased metric of research performance. PLoS ONE 1(1):e127.

Budden A.E. et al. (1008) Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors. TREE 23(1):4-6.

Shaw A.K. & Stanton D.E. (2012) Leaks in the pipeline: separating demographic inertia from ongoing gender differences in academia. Proc. R. Soc. B 279:3736-3741


12 thoughts on “Gender bias?

    • Hi Christopherlortie
      I agree that we should just take gender out of the equation and use bouble blind reviews. It apparently costs a lot (time, effort and money) to set it up in the first place; but I reckon it is a fairer system.

      • I wish someone would outline what is so difficult about double-blind review. Some journals do do it, so it can’t be that hard. Moreover, how hard is it to simply not provide reviewers with the author page of a MS, to ask authors not to include their name in headers, etc.? It might not be as ideal as having the handling editor also be blind, but it would be a good start. As a reviewer, I don’t want my biases about the gender/ethnicity/institution to affect my reading of a manuscript. But it’s always the first thing you see on a manuscript and invariably makes an impression.

  1. Could we look at submission rates by Gender and compare those to acceptance rates? How hard would it be to get those data – even just for MEE and maybe our sibling Journals?

    I’ve been thinking about this post off and on all weekend and I’m not convinced by that MEE type papers are “more exploratory and probably more likely to be undertaken by more experienced researchers”. Although this may be true my impression is that there is a reasonable representation from stats and application papers which are I think have a higher male to female ratio than Biology per se. My impression is that these tend to be driven by early career researchers rather than “more experienced” researchers. On submissions it might also be that there is a self selection bias in what we feel is a useful contribution to methods.

    • Hi Tinkerbell405
      You may very well be right that stats & application papers have a more male-biased authorship; and it is also very possible that self selection occurs.
      I think it would be great to look at submission rates and acceptance rates by gender.
      I think the main problem with issues like gender biases is that we just don’t have asccess to the data so it is difficult to show advantages or disadvantages to females.

    • I had the same thought about male/female ratios in different subdisciplines. In addition to self-selection, we might also consider that unconscious gender bias is more acute in the “mathy” sub disciplines, and so journals like MEE might have a lower female author fraction than, say, behavior journals — and thus it might be more important for such journals to implement double-blind review.

      • Hi Margaret

        I was wondering the same thing – Regarding double-blind review.

        Maybe there is a discussion to be had in this direction

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  3. I disagree with your estimate of how many female first-authored papers there ought to be if everything were equitable. Consider that tenured professors, though perhaps prolific, tend to be LAST authors. And there are many more post docs than tenured professors all around, so even if they produce fewer papers individually, there are more of them — and they’re much more likely to be fist authors. So you’d expect closer to the 41% ratio of post-docs. Say, 30-40% to be conservative.

    • Hi Margaret
      You may very we’ll be right. It’s so difficult to get information about how many papers are actually submitted (by gender) and where they are submitted and whether they are accepted.
      The Shaw & Stanton paper cited above models this kind of stuff so hopefully they will continue with their studies into gender bias and come up with more accurate numbers for individual research fields.

      • Hi
        I don’t really understand why it is so difficult to get this information. Or at least the information must be there in the system – Journals know what MSs have been Submitted and Accepted and at least the names of the authors on these MSs. Surely at least within a Journal this should be a reasonable stat to gather. We could possibly even ask the Authors as they are submitting the MS to tick a gender box (explaining what it is to be used for) as almost all job applications for Universities already do.
        Maybe we should look in to this.


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