"Nature" Takes on Its Gender Trouble

What interests me about this “Nature” editorial isn’t just the acknowledgment of the journal’s issues accompanied by an analysis to determine why these issues are happening, but the commitment to a clear plan of action to address the situation.

Dec 6, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I still remember the day one of my friends got his first paper published in “Nature.” He wasn’t even first author, but it was still, as Joe Biden would say, a big f’in’ deal. He sent us all links to the abstract so we could ooh and aah and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy; after years of school and research, he’d finally arrived. “Nature,” man!

Published since 1869, it’s the most frequently cited interdisciplinary science journal in the world. No shade cast on other great scientific journals, of course! It’s just that “Nature” is, well. “Nature.”

But all is not rosy at “Nature”

“Nature” has a bit of gender trouble. Much like science in general, it tends to be rather biased in the dudely direction, as a detailed review in the summer of this year revealed. Published in “Nature” itself as a Correspondence, “Gender matters: a call to commission more female writers” noted that the female representation in the journal’s News and Views was rather thin on the ground. Distressingly so, in fact.

This wasn’t the first time Daniel Conley and Johanna Stadmark had challenged “Nature” on this issue; seven years ago, the authors had analyzed the Insight overviews section and found similarly low statistical representation. In their analysis, as scientists are wont to do, they’d suggested some ways for improvement, and “Nature” took them to heart, working on addressing the issue. The journal has made some progress since 2007, as noted by the authors, but not enough, and this week, it openly engaged with Conley and Stadmark in an editorial.

The response noted that while the hiring practices at “Nature” seemed gender balanced, in terms of both regular staff and freelancers, its editorial staff contained an unusually large number of men. Just 14% of the editors who evaluated papers submitted in 2011 were women, while only 18% of the researchers and scientists profiled in 2011 and into 2012 were women. Meanwhile, of external Comment and World View articles run by “Nature,” 19% included a female author.

I would like to see a similar analysis for women scientists of color, who experience even more extreme biases, as well as disabled scientists

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Physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was the second African-American woman in the United States to receive a PhD in physics. (Photo credit: PopTech.)

Where are all the lady scientists?

This gender imbalance, the editorial reflects, is in line with that across the sciences, where a significant gender bias is in play. A recently released study looking at academic hiring practices showed a distinct bias, for example. The editors at “Nature” also acknowledged that the burden of caring for a family also tends to fall on women, which can interfere with research and other activities. 

Furthermore, the editors noted:

The proportion of female researchers active in certain disciplines is low. The proportion of women active in the upper reaches of all disciplines is low. As a result, women in science will be asked to help to ensure a gender balance on committees and will therefore collectively experience greater pressure of that sort than men, leaving less time for writing and reviewing.

The issue of being slapped onto committees and engaged in other attempts to diversify and rectify imbalances isn’t limited to women; people of color, nonwhite people, and people with disabilities also often find themselves asked to perform in this arena. This leaves less time overall for research, professional development, and related activities, which can in turn lead to underrepresentation in academic journals across the disciplines, including in the sciences.

In other words, the very awareness of a disparity can, in a way, increase the severeness of the disparity, through well-meaning attempts to address the issue.

Creating accountability

What interests me about this “Nature” editorial isn’t just the acknowledgment of the journal’s issues accompanied by an analysis to determine why these issues are happening, but the commitment to a clear plan of action to address the situation. Editors at “Nature,” the editorial concludes, should ask themselves “Who are the five women I could ask?” when preparing to commission an article. This doesn’t mean selecting less qualified people to meet a diversity quota, the editors note, but it does mean being more aware of how biases affect who editors think of when they prepare to commission pieces.

This is a fascinating case of a concrete call to action in the form of a detailed analysis of a specific bias, followed by a thoughtful, measured response from the target. Communications like these are not unusual in the sciences as people interact with each other, with academic institutions, and with the journals that regulate the publication of research, all with the goal of making the sciences better. Creating a system for accountability is critical, and this is an example of that system at work.

It’s something I wish would spread beyond academia, because it can be a highly functional model when used well, and it’s something with much broader applications. Similar analyses could probe the representation not just of women writers, journalists, commentators, and other figures in the media, but also the representation of people of color, disabled people, queer people, and other members of groups who can be victims of unconscious bias in hiring and commissioning practices.

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Engineer Dr. Tahany El-Wardany has an impressive list of publications in the manufacturing sciences. (Photo credit: ctcorg.

Hey everyone: take a lesson from “Nature”

A model that includes both a thoughtful, data-rich analysis and a serious response to it, with a clear outline for a plan of action and specific goals that can be used for accountability, is one way to address structural biases rife in society. As the “Nature” editors note, many of these biases operate on an unconscious level, but this makes them no less pernicious. In the face of unconscious bias, it becomes necessary to exercise conscious thought.

“Who are the five women I could ask?” “Who are the five disabled people I could ask?” “Who are the five people of color I could ask?” These are all questions that commissioning editors should be asking themselves when preparing to commission a story, but it doesn’t stop there. People preparing panels for conferences and events should be asking them. People thinking about speakers, lecturers, and workshop leaders should be asking them. People seeking candidates for key positions at both government and private organizations should be asking them.

“Could ask” doesn’t mean “must ask” or “must select.” It just means “push yourself a bit beyond your boundaries.”