Ecologists are gender-biased

16 11 2017
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© xkcd.com

I normally don’t do this, but this is an extra-ordinary circumstance.

As many of you are already aware, Franck Courchamp and I published a paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday that ranked high-profile ecology papers. I won’t go into any details about the list here, because you can read the paper and the associated blog posts themselves.

The publication caused a bit of a stir among ecologists, evidenced by the rather high and rising Altmetrics score for the paper (driven mainly by a Boaty McBoatface-load of tweets). I haven’t done any social-media analysis, but it appears that most of the tweets were positive, a few were negative, and a non-trivial proportion of them were highly critical of the obvious male-biased nature of the list (in terms of article authors).

On that last point, we couldn’t agree more.

Which is why we have a follow-up analysis specifically addressing this gender bias, but that’s currently in review in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

In the meantime, however, and at the suggestion of possibly one of the coolest, nicest, and most logical editors in the world, Dr Patrick Goymer (Editor-in-Chief of Nature Ecology and Evolution), I’ve just posted a pre-print of our paper entitled “Gender-biased perceptions of important ecology articles” on bioRxiv.

First, we have to re-iterate that the list was proposed and voted by editors at some of the top ecology journals (i.e., we didn’t just make up the list on a whim), and we know that there is a strong gender skew among editors.

In fact, of the 665 editors we initially contacted, only 22% were women, and of these, only 14 women (10%) and 137 men (26%) responded.

As for the ranking itself, both men and women tended to rank male author-dominated articles higher, although this bias was more pronounced among men. When we considered the ‘read only’ list, these relationships disappeared (although men still tended to vote for more men-dominated papers).

The main reason the relationships disappeared is because older papers tended to have fewer women co-authors; indeed, the top-rated papers of the last decade tended to approach the expected proportion of women in our discipline of 23-27%, based on the broad gender ratio of publishing ecologists worldwide.

That both men and women ecologists rated articles that they had not actually read higher when they were more men-dominated is of course disconcerting, yet once they did personally evaluate (read) them, this bias disappeared. We think that this indicates that ecologists had the a priori assumption that men-dominated papers would somehow be better. This assumption was stronger in men than women, but it seems that women ecologists are still subject to a persistent form of auto-sexism, perhaps kept flourishing by a remaining academic culture of valuing women’s contributions less than men’s.

There are more components to and implications of this analysis than I can succinctly summarise here, so I encourage you to read the paper in its entirety. Of course, if the article is accepted for publication, I’ll certainly let you know.

It suffices to say that while we’re improving toward gender equality, we ecologists still have a lot of work to do.

CJA Bradshaw

 

 


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9 responses

17 11 2017
Friday links: Berkson’s paradox, writing review papers using Twitter, and more | Dynamic Ecology

[…] Courchamp & Bradshaw’s follow-up paper on the gender balance of their list is summarized here. (iii) The topics covered by the top 100 papers are those that many N. American and European […]

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17 11 2017
Alice C Hughes

I think all articles should initialize first names, that way at least part of our implicit bias could not impact what we read and cite

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17 11 2017
CJAB

Agreed

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17 11 2017
Britt Koskella

Just a quick note to add that you should be cautious in drawing any conclusions about whether or not women are or are not less biased than men given your sub sample of only 14 individuals. Other than that, interesting stuff!

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17 11 2017
CJAB

There were actually 62 female voters from which we estimated the gender relationships (see Methods in http://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0370-9)

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17 11 2017
Britt Koskella

I see. Text above said “In fact, of the 665 editors we initially contacted, only 22% were women, and of these, only 14 women (10%) and 137 men (26%) responded.” which is where I got this…

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18 11 2017
franckcourchamp

Britt, the 14+137 are the editors who proposed papers to be voted on; more editors participated to the voting phase

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17 11 2017
Ulises Balza

In Argentina, 52% of researchers and 60% of PhD and postdoc students are women; still they have not access to high-profile positions in the Government’s scientific institution (CONICET) (1) (only 25% of women are in the highest category of reseacher, similar to 23-28% that you mentioned). I don’t have the numbers, but I suspect that within ecology the proportion of women is even greater, reflecting their proportion in undergraduate careers. But they still deal with huge difficulties that put them at a disadvantage; they are practically forced to delay their motherhood in order to access the same possibilities as us, for example.
I hope that the ‘broad gender ratio’ in the scientific literature is just a matter of time.

Ulises

(1) http://www.conicet.gov.ar/mujeres-en-el-conicet-una-tendencia-creciente/

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16 11 2017
SoundEagle

Thank you for your post. One wonders whether the reverse would be true in a female-dominated discipline.

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