Boys Clubhouse, 2017 edition

Update 2/11/17 (International Women in Science Day). The Atlantic has a dispiriting piece on how scientists of color are not gaining ground in academia.  The causes sound a lot like like the story below. Apparently we white male scientists like what we see in the mirror far too much.

Years ago (um, 1980s), there was a conversation between a young female geoscientist and a prestigious professor from a Major Research School.  Prestigious Prof said that they really wanted to hire a woman but there weren’t any who measured up scientifically.  The female geoscientist immediately ticked off the names of five or six women scientists who would have been fine hires. Several are now American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fellows. Who was right?

It would be easy to write off Prestigious Prof as a sexist pig, but he really wasn’t; it was more being blinded by his own landmarks for excellence in his field.  The effect, though, was to engage in de facto sexual discrimination. It was many more years before the Major Research School hired a female faculty member, all the more surprising because all through this time their graduate students were nearly 1:1 female to male.

The lesson is that thinking you are open minded doesn’t mean you are.  And while female participation in the sciences continues to grow, there are still corners of possible discrimination. One of the more surprising showed up in an Ars Technica report today: For AGU journals, women are asked to review papers less often than would be expected from their representation in the field. The conclusion of the study cited was that this was mainly because women were asked less often to review papers, although they were turning requests down at a slightly higher rate than men.

Now this is talking relatively small percentage differences, not the giant goose egg of female faculty back at ol’ MRS in the 80s. And the assumption that this is an important part of developing as a scientist that the Ars piece accepts is debatable (for most of us, reviewing is a chore, especially if it is a poor paper and really especially if it is a poor paper outside our immediate sphere of interest, but it does force you to look at some literature closely).  But let’s accept the premise and ask, why are women asked less often? Could be bias from the editors (or, more typically for the AGU journals, the associate editors) but it can also be bias from authors, who will usually suggest reviewers and editors will often take one of those suggestions. All of which amounts to a subtler discrimination than what women endured in years past.  There can be a feedback amplifying the slightly higher percentage of review requests turned down by women: many journals will show the reviewing history of a reviewer to an editor, and if you see somebody has been turning down review requests, you think twice before asking them to review your paper. But there might be something more in play, and so it would be interesting to know if female editors engage in this too.  Why? Because as the most prominent underrepresented group in earth science, women are far more frequently asked to serve on a dizzying array of committees in order to be sure the committees are representative of diversity (GG has observed this up close). Now this can be a good thing if a high-profile committee, but an awful lot are busywork. So it is also possible that editors are sometimes choosing to protect female faculty from even more demands on their time (recall, most of us view reviewing a service burden and not the highlight of our days); if female editors do this as much or more than male editors, maybe this is the real reason. Even so, such paternalism is explicit discrimination, even if well-intentioned–even if done by women editors with the thought of helping other women scientists.

Frankly, GG would be happy to share the load. And so he’ll be trying to suggest female scientists as reviewers of papers he declines.

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