Nature excoriates self for sexist behavior, vows to improve

November 21, 2012

The general science journal Nature has an interesting editorial up:

Earlier this year, we published a Correspondence that rightly took Nature to task for publishing too few female authors in our News and Views section (D. Conley and J. Stadmark Nature 488, 590; 2012). Specifically, in the period 2010–11, the proportions of women News and Views authors in life, physical and Earth sciences were 17%, 8% and 4%, respectively. The authors of the Correspondence had taken us to task in 2005 with a similar analysis for the authorship of our Insight overview articles, and gave us slight credit for having improved that position.

they then went on to perform some additional reviews of their performance.

Our performance as editors is much less balanced.
Of the 5,514 referees who assessed Nature’s submitted papers in 2011, 14% were women.
Of the 34 researchers profiled by journalists in 2011 and so far in 2012, 6 (18%) were women.
Of externally written Comment and World View articles published in 2011 and so far in 2012, 19% included a female author.

then, after the inevitable external blaming they actually get down to it.

We therefore believe that there is a need for every editor to work through a conscious loop before proceeding with commissioning: to ask themselves, “Who are the five women I could ask?”

Under no circumstances will this ‘gender loop’ involve a requirement to fulfil a quota or to select anyone whom we do not know to be fully appropriate for the job, although we will set ourselves internal targets to help us to focus on the task.

HAHHAHAAH. “We’re going to have quotas but we’re not using quotas!” Good one Nature!

What a load of crap. People in academia and other places that are dealing with representativeness need to just stop falling for this right-wing, anti-affirmative-action, anti-diversity bullshit talking point. Quotas are just fine. Numbers are the way clearly discriminatory and unequal practices are revealed and they are the only way we’re going to know when we’ve improved.

But…regardless. Good on Nature for this one.

For the rest of you, keep the spotlight shining brightly upon them. Because they admit themselves that this gender inequality of their pages has been brought to their awareness as long ago as 2005 and. they. still. haven’t. really. improved. Make no mistake, improving diversity on any measure is not easy. It takes highly sustained attention, effort and force of will to change entrenched, unthinking* cultural biases. Not everyone in the organization will even agree with the goals expressed in this editorial and will work harder to find excuses not to change than they do to make improvements. So I don’t expect miracles.

But Nature, you are a premier venue of scientific publication which gives you a very high platform from which to enact cultural change. I do hope you are not blowing smoke on this one.

*which they are for the most part.


No Responses Yet to “Nature excoriates self for sexist behavior, vows to improve”

  1. Virgil Says:

    I was until recently in a leadership position in a moderately sized scientific society**. We get taken to task every year for not having enough female [speakers / session chairs / council members / award winners / journal editors]. The numbers vacillate between 15 and 50% for all these categories depending on the year. Every year, people who ask questions about under-representation of women in the society get asked a single question in return – what percentage of the general membership of the society is women? Every year, they can’t give any concrete figures (although my own calculations suggest the number is about 20%). It’s tough, with a lot of gender-neutral names in the member logs. Anyway, it boils down to how can anyone complain about “representation” when the numbers on what’s actually out there to be represented are not clear?

    Applying the same logic to Nature – what % of their submitted article authors are women? What percentage of their readership/subscriptions? I would be willing to bet the percentages of editors/reviewers/commentary authors aligns pretty well with those numbers already. The reason they have fewer women in those positions is not their fault, it’s just because that’s the make up of the demographic they target when seeking to fill those positions (i.e. senior academics).

    The problem is with the simple fix… just send more papers to female reviewers for example. For reasons that have been discussed ad nauseam here, women disproportionately occupy the lower ranks of the scientific job ladder relative to men, so increasing the percentage of female reviewers would have the unintended consequence of lowering the average academic rank of the reviewer pool, and that’s probably not something Nature would want. Would you rather have your paper reviewed by a male professor or a female post-doc? The more difficult solution of actually increasing the numbers of women in the demographic groups from which these posts are filled (i.e. upper level academia) is unlikely to be solved by a couple of interesting editorials in a journal.

    **FYI, the position I occupied in said society is now occupied by a woman.


  2. drugmonkey Says:

    Nature mentions the same excuses but still concludes they can do better. I agree and academic societies are not different in this regard. Until and unless every single woman member is begging for mercy nt to be selected again for plenary and assorted platform address gigs.


  3. DJMH Says:

    The more difficult solution of actually increasing the numbers of women in the demographic groups from which these posts are filled (i.e. upper level academia) is unlikely to be solved by a couple of interesting editorials in a journal.

    Not sure this is 100% accurate. For example, let’s say Nature wants a News and Views on an article. They may very well look first to the pool of reviewers. If there are more women reviewing, there may be more opportunities for women to write a preview piece, which in turns enhances visibility (not as much as having an actual paper, of course, but still).

    Increased visibility tends to mean increased invitations for seminars, conferences, etc–all of these places where women are frequently underrepresented, ie invited in fewer numbers than their frequency within the field. And success in these venues is going to increase the likelihood of tenure, and more importantly give women the sense that they are valued in the community, so they’re less likely to drop out.

    Anyhow, I was pleasantly surprised that they wrote the thing. Nothing like as useful as the J Neurophys assessment from a few years back, but at least it’s something.


  4. Alex Says:

    My own career has seen a few benefits since a journal asked me to review an article and then write a commentary piece. So I concur with DJMH that if journals asked more women to review, they’d ask more women to write News and Views pieces, which would result in more women being invited to give talks, etc.


  5. Anon Says:

    I must say that I like the idea of the mental exercise “who are the 5 women I could ask”. When an editor is looking for someone to write a commentary or review a paper or whatever, I’m sure a mental list of “the usual suspects” comes up. But if we all took the time to add 5 women (or minorities, or whatever group we feel is underrepresented) to that list, even without quotas I suspect representation would grow. For example, if I’m inviting speakers to a conference, my first thought may be to invite Dr. Famous White Guy. But if I take the time to think of others who I could invite, I might be more likely to remember Dr. Slightly-less-famous Gal who is a terrific speaker. Of course we should invite her! Naturally this will contribute to the problem of the relatively few women in a field being asked to do all sorts of things, and they will have to say no sometimes. But I don’t think this can hurt.


  6. Interesting that they didn’t identify any possible connection between their poor record and the fact that one of their senior editors is a proven sexist pigge.


  7. Alex Says:


    Since you’re big on publishing in Glamour Magz, I’m curious what sort of dictionary they use when spell-checking the articles.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    Now, now PP.


  9. drugmonkey Says:

    I mean Science and Cell and whatnot are better do ya think?


  10. Who said anything about anyone else being better or worse? Regardless of any such inquiry, it is an easily ascertainable fact in the public record that one of Nature’s senior editors is a sexist douchebagge who thinks laydeez need to lighten up and get a sense of humor.

    Try to keep your mind focused, holmes.


  11. kevin. Says:

    I am a while male applying for faculty jobs this Fall, and I am appalled by the lack of women (and non-caucasians) in tenure-track positions in the advertising departments. It’s like 2-3 in a group of 15, at best. Some fields, like basic biology, can be better, but some fields, like physiology or pharmacology, are just awful. I don’t think it speaks well of a department to be so off-base like that. The white men making these hiring decisions need to choose to diversify or it just isn’t going to happen.


  12. […] stats are discussed in light of (blamed on?) contributing external factors:  fewer women in some fields, especially in upper echelons, and […]


  13. Laurent Says:

    ” Would you rather have your paper reviewed by a male professor or a female post-doc?”

    Were I to chose, I’d go for the post-doc referee, even if it would actually be a tougher review. It will indeed be a better assessment of my work (that is, closer to the actual quality of the paper), and it will probably never be dismissive through a poor reading or prior assessment of fame.

    I’m not sure whether reviewer’s sex at post-doc stage makes any difference with regard to manuscript assessment, but if it does, it’s probably leaning toward a more meticulous and balanced treatment.

    Old guys may still be good at judging what’s really outstanding (literally), but they’ll also fail more easily at spotting originality when they don’t understand it.


  14. ploegh Says:

    “I’m not sure whether reviewer’s sex at post-doc stage makes any difference with regard to manuscript assessment, but if it does, it’s probably leaning toward a more meticulous and balanced treatment.”

    and your probablility assessment was arrived at how exactly?


  15. Laurent Says:

    “and your probablility assessment was arrived at how exactly?”

    This is an opinion based on my experience as an assistant editor in an international ecological journal (I had to find reviewers and manage correspondence during review process –mind you, I wasn’t blind so I had access to produced reviews), so this is the part from “behind the scene”. What’s stemmed as an informed feeling was later sort of confirmed during my science journey at different places (5 different labs) where small talks with other trainees (more often than PI) occasionnally steps into blind “reviewing advice” (like “what do you think of [specific statistical or sampling or table/fig issue]? – Why? – Well, I’m reviewing a paper and some people did so but…”). When you think about the level of the issue, you may be able to make a personnal judgement of meticulousness involved. The main sampling issue is that at times you cannot really assess the sex of the scientist* when you don’t meet her/him personnally.

    I have to admit that I have been misleading in the categories at stake. I’m not really speaking of post-docs (it includes near defending PhD students –yes even these can review your papers-). It’s more “early career scientists” (at least one paper as a first author, up to grossly less than 10 papers total). And all poor reviews sample comes from assistant editor experience, because obviously PIs don’t run out of their office screaming out loud they bullied and messed a review. But still, this kind of review is uniformely a senior scientist’s fault (we cannot test anything sexual there, because the population is so much biased toward maleness –and bad or nearly bad reviews are not the rule neither, it is obvious why this should be a senior happenstance though).

    I don’t have a peer-reviewed reference to sustain my comment here (it’d be interesting to test, but this is not the kind of data easily sorted out, we are talking reviewing process black hole), I don’t make it a strong claim, just an opinion. But I don’t feel like I need meteorological data to know when the weather is cloudy.

    Now does it help you how I came to my probability assessment? It would greatly have helped the discussion if you had given clues as to what your own opinion is. Did you feel outraged that I wrote female post-docs might be more meticulous and balanced in their assessment of other people’s work? Or on the contrary do you take it for granted already?

    You can also ask me to come up with an hypothesis as to why this could be. Here it is: I think all of this might stem from our current culture which is more demanding on females than it is on males. (And it all starts early). On average, male students will stop halfway of a task and beg for approval (or even stop there if they think it’s good enough) when female students won’t. They also do that of course, but they’ll do that at a much later step on average, if not upon actual completion. You might find many examples in the “gender” litterature that would lean this way.

    * Amazingly you can get this easily wrong –e.g., which sex would you give to me? That’s also why I take it cautiously // and I wasn’t sexing up things at the time. But for a feeling like this to occur, there’s certainly some substance to it. I don’t pretend that what happened later in a meater space is not confirmatory bias neither. I just suspect there’s something here, that is, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is confirmed by actual data someday.


  16. Kaleberg Says:

    The journal Science went through this maybe 20 years ago after a survey article on some area of biology interviewed only male researchers. A letter writer pointed out that the article was mistitled and should have been not “Survey of Researchers in X”, but “Survey of Male Researchers in X”, and that there were lots of women doing research in the area. Science actually made changes. Basically, their reporters were encouraged to expand their contacts lists. It’s easier to call the same bunch of guys for comments on any new development, but you get a much less closed view of the world if you have a bigger, broader list. I noticed the difference in Science pretty quickly, and if you look at Science survey articles these days, you don’t see very many in which all the researchers mentioned or quoted are male.

    I’m rather surprised to learn that Nature has waited this long to address their problem. This isn’t about quotas, but about a pernicious type of laziness. It’s accepting Aristotle’s claim that women have fewer teeth than men rather than looking in a few mouths, and in that it is anti-scientific. There are lots of women out there doing good research. They should be getting good coverage.


  17. Grumble Says:

    Clearly Nature needs some more Binders Full of Women.


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