Solving the skewed sex ratio on science journal editorial boards

On this blog in October 2014, Senior Editor, Tim Coulson presented an argument for solving the sex ratio problem in scientific academia. He proposed that we should mandate that universities and institutes appoint equal numbers of men and women at each professional level from faculty positions though to full professors. Whilst the skewed sex ratio in academia has been long recognised and discussed, there is another bias much closer to home that has received significantly less attention: the male-bias on many science journal editorial boards. To coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th, I thought it would be useful to highlight this important issue.

Back in 2014, just 13% of Journal of Animal Ecology Associate Editors were female, and none of our Senior Editors were. Whilst sex ratios on other ecology journals were generally much better than this, none of them were anywhere near to sex ratio parity. So, why was this and what have we done to try to remedy this?

Journal of Animal Ecology has four senior editors, three of whom (Ben Sheldon, Jean-Michel Gaillard and Nate Sanders) have been appointed in the last 2-3 years. During this period, we strongly encouraged women to apply, but we received only a small handful of applications from women. Did we do enough to encourage experienced women to apply? Evidently not. Each of the Senior Editors involved in the shortlisting processes did informally encourage good candidates to apply – both female and male – and all of our Associate Editors at the time were also encouraged to apply. In addition, the advertisements for the positions, specifically suggested that we wanted applicants who would add to the ‘diversity’ of the Senior Editor board.

So what can we do to address this issue? We could pledge to always interview at least one female applicant, regardless of where they rank overall on our shortlist (a sort of female Rooney Rule). But based on previous pools of applicants, I am sceptical as to whether this would be of help in the ultimate goal of recruiting female Senior Editors. A different approach is required. Perhaps the solution to our Senior Editor problem is to appoint more female Associate Editors, in the hope that it will promote a stronger pipeline to the senior positions.

Correcting the male-bias of the AE board is a laudable goal in itself, of course, and for the last 2-3 years we have been taking positive action to appoint more female AEs. This is not to say that we have exclusively appointed only women, but we have followed a policy of first exhaustively considering a pool of potential female candidates. In so doing, we have improved the sex ratio from 13% in 2014 to 36% in March 2016. This has been a relatively easy process, but has not been without issues. From personal experience, I have found that when we approach suitable male candidates for AE positions, the first response is generally very positive and mostly they accept without further discussion. In contrast, female candidates are much more likely to either decline immediately due to other commitments (this is especially true of non-tenured professors in the US), or to request further information about the role and the time commitment involved. Of course the latter is a very sensible approach and perhaps just reflects a difference between the sexes in common sense!

It is my hope to achieve equality on the AE board in the not too distant future. Once we achieve this target, we hope that it can be maintained in the long term, but this will probably not happen without continued positive action, as the pool of suitable individuals (mostly experienced early-mid career faculty) is consistently male-biased.

To stimulate further discussion on these issues, I asked one of our Associate Editors, Sheena Cotter, to think about them from her personal perspective as an early-mid career female academic. Her response is below and will, I hope, encourage others to enter the discussion.

One final thought. Gender, of course, is not the only diversity issue academic journals face. I write this blog from the Universidade Federal de Viçosa in Brazil, where I have just given a presentation to staff and students on ‘How to Get Published’ from an Editor’s perspective. For my audience, an equally pressing issue is how we address the geographical and ethnic imbalance of the editorial board (and, indeed, of the papers we publish), which is still overwhelmingly in favour of white Europeans and North Americans. If we can simultaneously address all of these issues, we will be doing very well indeed.

Let us have your thoughts.

Ken Wilson, Senior Editor

A response from one of our female Associate EditorsCotter, S

When Ken told me that the editorial board of JAE had been just 13% female when he took over as Senior Editor, I wasn’t particularly surprised. The pool is smaller. The number of women in ecology is very close to parity at undergraduate, PhD and postdoctoral levels, but then starts to decline dramatically. To be approached to be an Associate Editor, a woman would have to have a certain level of experience, and by lecturer level there are already fewer females than males. I also suspect women may be less prominent than men at the same stage of their career. If the choice of who to approach is determined in part by who you are aware of in a certain field, then this may be driven by how much scientists promote themselves via networking at conferences, organising meetings and seminars, sitting on grant committees etc. It is likely that women with young families spend less time on these activities than men as they typically require time spent away from home.

There is also “unconscious bias” associated with gender. We are all susceptible to it, I don’t recall a single female lecturer when I was an undergraduate and I doubt I remarked upon it, because scientists were always men. I’m still sometimes surprised when an ambiguously named scientist turns out to be female, my default assumption is male. This may seem fairly harmless until you are in a position to recruit and you may inadvertently prefer a male candidate over an equally, or better, qualified female one. So to increase the percentage of female AEs you just have to identify suitable candidates and approach them, right? Well, apparently not, because it seems that women are more likely to say no. This was a surprise.

When I was approached to take on the role of Associate Editor for JAE, I was delighted and jumped at the chance. However, at that point I was a NERC fellow with minimal teaching duties and no children. The potential extra workload didn’t cross my mind. But many potential female candidates for AE will be trying to balance a heavy workload and a young family and may be loath to add to that burden. Before I had kids I couldn’t understand the claim that having children was the reason that women dropped out of academia, because most women don’t have children on their own, they have them with men, and presumably there are as many men with young families as there are women. So what’s going on? Of course, I don’t really know the answer, I can only talk from personal experience.

First, the physical act of carrying and then delivering a child (or two – I’m lucky enough to have twins…) is physically exhausting. I couldn’t work as hard while I was pregnant as I could beforehand. Second, it takes over your brain in a way that it doesn’t seem to for the father. Babies become real to women much earlier on in the process than they do for men. I spent so much of my time thinking and reading about pregnancy, the birth, new babies, what we’d need to buy, how our lives would change etc., that I really got hardly any work done at all. Once the baby is born, something happens to your brain, at least in the short term, and this is something that highly intelligent female colleagues have also experienced. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on science when my children were babies. I don’t think this really happens to men. They might still be very involved and do their fair share around the house and take their turn at night feeds (if possible) but I don’t think they experience the “brain melt”, and this takes a while to get over.

Now that my children are a bit older (2, 2 and 4), I think my brain functions just fine, but my priorities have definitely changed. I used to quite regularly stay late at work during the week and at the weekends, but now I always leave work by 5pm and only work in the evening on weekends if I absolutely have to. I am not prepared to miss the evening with my children during the week. At the weekend, I spend the day with my children and running around after 3 small ones from 6am to 7pm is pretty exhausting so working in the evening is a challenge. Shouldn’t this be true of men too? I’m sure it is true of many men, but I have also worked with several male colleagues at the same career stage as me, with young children, who regularly stay late at work. I’m not aware of any women who do this. So if I was asked to be an AE now would I jump at the chance? Of course I would, but I know what to expect; if I didn’t, given my massively increased workload since becoming a tenured lecturer and the increased priority of time with my children, if I didn’t know what to expect I’d certainly ask!

So how do we increase the number of female AEs? We approach suitably qualified female candidates and make it clear that the workload isn’t onerous and you can balance it by reducing the numbers of papers you accept to review. It is a prestigious position, increases your profile and looks good on your CV. It is vital to increase the visibility of female scientists as this can help to redress the unconscious association of “science” with “men” and increasing the pool of experienced female AEs will hopefully result in one of us applying to be a Senior Editor in the near future – watch out Ken!

Sheena Cotter, Associate Editor


7 thoughts on “Solving the skewed sex ratio on science journal editorial boards

  1. Hi all, you may be interested in this paper, in which we reviewed the sex ratio from 1985-2013 of 10 journals in ecology, evolution, & natural resource management:

    Cho AH, Johnson SA, Schuman CE, Adler JM, Gonzalez O, Graves SJ, Huebner JR, Marchant DB, Rifai SW, Skinner I, Bruna EM. (2014) Women are underrepresented on the editorial boards of journals in environmental biology and natural resource management. PeerJ 2:e542

    As an aside, Ken is spot on about geographic diversity. We have just wrapped up a similar analysis of how geographic diversity has changed over the last 25 years in >20 journals and the results are…bleak. We hope to post a preprint of that manuscript soon.

  2. One option we (at Axios) have found useful is to offer editors the ability to set their own workloads – 30+ papers per year is a big commitment, and probably deters potential editors who can’t carve that much time out of their lives. This obviously makes things a little more complicated with respect to stipends and ensuring that the journal has enough editorial capacity, but it might help people with non-negotiable time commitments to contribute as editors.

  3. I think there’s something else to consider here. Aiming for equality on AE boards is a laudable goal, which I support. But I think we need to be careful: if we aim for equality on AE boards without fixing the underlying gender bias in academia, then we are by necessity putting more of the burden of AE jobs onto women.

    Let’s imagine that the gender balance of the pool of potential AE’s is 1/3 women to 2/3 men (that’s roughly what it is in my department, and I think it wouldn’t be too far off a decent estimate for biology in general). If we mandate a 50/50 balance on the AE board, then 50% of the workload is given to the 1/3 of the workforce that are women. In this case, each woman would be doing about twice as much AE work as each man. That doesn’t seem very progressive to me. It might even exacerbate other biases – if men get half the workload in these kinds of areas, they have more time for their own research. The same logic applies to other things, e.g. committee work, which I have seen balanced gender mandates applied to before.

    I think there are various solutions here. The main problem is the gender bias in the underlying pool of potential AEs, and I think most of us (at least, most of us here…) are working to fix that in various ways: better advertising, hiring, working conditions, recognition of career breaks etc. But as long as the underlying pool’s is still gender biased, I think we need more nuanced solutions than basic gender equality on AE boards, committees, and elsewhere. One option would be for journals to aim to have a gender balance that reflects the gender balance of the underlying pool of potential AEs (you can get this data from various sources, depending on the country you are in). Another option would be do what Tim said, and aim for equal representation in terms of numbers, but distribute workloads appropriately, bearing in mind the gender balance of the underlying pool.

    I quite like the latter idea – increasing the relative workload of male AEs (myself included) based on academia’s persistent gender bias might help get more men on board with fixing the problems.

  4. I think Sheena Cotter hits the nail on the head with her comment about networking and this is a problem for academia in general. There is a perception that one has to be known and in the club/old boys network to get anywhere, whether it be positions on editorial boards, grants or any other key indicator of academic success (I am not saying that this is true but it is a perception I come across commonly). This is a particular problem in the British system (I became acutely aware of not being in these clubs having been out of the country for 6 years) and leads to a lack of transparency in how decisions are made. I have not seen an associate editor post for a reputable journal advertised. I eventually was offered these positions by lobbying to be invited ironically using what ever connections to the network I had. Ultimately networking requires travel to conferences, these new “town meetings/sandpits” and other travel, which is just not family friendly, and this is a problem for academia in general: it is not family friendly, and as Sheena points out, women seem to be less likely to compromise family for this. I don’t see a solution to this lack of family friendliness as long as we have government assessment based QR money leading to Vice Chancellors demanding stretched targets and ultimately forcing staff to work above and beyond what most jobs require. Is there a contract for a lecturer or above in the UK that states hours rather than “the hours required to do the job”? I have not yet seen one.

  5. Great post, and hits close to home. About a year ago I stepped down as an assoc editor with JAE after a short period of service. I loved this opportunity but felt I was vastly underperforming in terms of numbers of papers handled and turnaround time relative to the stats I saw on other associate editors. I wasn’t willing to give up any more time on evenings and weekends to catch up. With one preschooler and a baby on the way I knew my time would only get more limited in the coming year. I like the idea of adjusting the workload and expectations for women with young children, or granting extended leave, to allow them to stay on as editors without feeling massively guilty for taking on fewer papers or having somewhat longer turnaround time, within reason. Another idea would be more tangible rewards or incentives to attract women to take this on as when you have little ones at home time is so precious and hard to come by… Thanks for the frank discussion of this important issue!

  6. I read these posts and comments with great interest, and I laud the goal of increasing the representation of women scientists on editorial boards. What I do not understand is the emphasis on filling editorial boards with early and mid-career scientists, those scientists most likely to be time-stressed because they are balancing career and family. Is this not age-ism and does it not contribute to the problem that editorial boards often do not reflect the diversity of scientists? Many older women scientists whose children are grown might be delighted now to contribute in ways that they could not previously, and their considerable experience in scientific writing and mentoring should be excellent and sought after qualities in editors. Unfortunately, given the emphasis on appointing early to mid-career scientists, women who have survived to the mid to late career stages, will probably continue to be overlooked. It seems a great pity that later in their careers, age-ism may perpetuate the sexist biases that many women scientists faced early in their careers.

  7. I think we also need to consider departmental demands. Often these do fall disproportionately on women-even if it is just to try to get balance on various committees, if (when) you have a smaller pool of women to draw from-they end up needing to be on many more committees to get that “perceived balance”; so taking further additional activities may be harder to fit in.
    When I compare what I am expected to do relative to the “international” men (I live in China, so the things do vary between local and international staff), the expectations for me for activities requiring “soft skills” (and time) which the institute needs-but does not account for in review is enormous….and from what I see, this is a common phenomena almost everywhere

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