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Unmask the Reviewer- My Response to #AddMaleAuthorGate

May 11, 2015

2015-05 AddmaleauthorgateLast week, there was a big scandal at PLoS One (a major science journal) for some very sexist comments that were made as part of the peer review process. Retraction Watch wrote a nice summary on this. (For twitter commentary, see #addmaleauthorgate.)

Personally, I was floored by how openly sexist the comments were. Usually, sexism is much more subtle- it’s more about things that don’t happen: third author, not first; section chair, not keynote speech; secretary, not president.

John Gill, the Editor of Times Higher Education invited me to respond to this scandal through a Letter to the Editor. I’ve posted it below.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender inequality in higher education- A few examples that come to mind immediately: clear biases in Citation Practices (in international relations, in sciences), Teaching Evaluations, Letters of Recommendation, and Lower Starting Salaries. For a statistical snapshot of the problem in the UK, see Anna Notaro’s piece. More controversially, I would argue that the darker problems of rape culture in the US and Canada, and laddism and harassment in the UK, are related manifestations of how society and its institutions deal with gender inequality.

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Male Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

Female Scientist Adjectives in Reference Letters

But clearly, the problem of gender inequality is not limited to universities and colleges. It persists globally, in just about every field, and pervades more aspects of our lives than we’d care to admit. Some will read this scandal as an isolated incident, but I assure you, it is not. There is now a fair amount of  hard evidence demonstrating that sexism is systemic. Whether it is conscious or subconscious is debatable- but it is definitely systemic.

#AddMaleAuthorGate only scratches the surface of an inequality that runs very very deep- even then, you will only see it if you choose to look for it. And therein lies the problem- most of us don’t want to see it. Including me.

For the first two decades of my life, I genuinely believed that gender inequality was a dying problem. When I was 18, I laughed at my mom when she told me that I would eventually hit a glass ceiling in my career. I was convinced that by the time I was old enough to enter the workforce, discrimination against women in Canada would be in its twilight years- extinct, like the dinosaurs.

Since that conversation with my mom so long ago, I’ve come to realize that culture and norms are powerful things. Gender inequality is structural, sociological, biological, political, geographical, cultural. It is embedded into the social fabric of our societies, and it will take generations for big changes to take root. In the meantime, here’s my small contribution:

Inexcusable sexism calls for action

7 May 2015

The sexist nature of the peer review comments (suggesting that a paper written by two female researchers ought to include at least one male author to make sure that the data are interpreted correctly and saying that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) that were offered in response to Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head’s Plos One journal submission on gender inequality in the life sciences has been met with a roar of public outrage (“‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online”, 30 April).

As a female academic, I personally found some of the sexist comments (such as only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) so outlandish that it was difficult to take them seriously. Surely no credible scientist could honestly believe that it is physical stamina that explains men’s publication advantage? That the journal editor(s) accepted such a review without challenge was equally galling.

If these comments were indeed meant to be taken literally, let me ask, rather provocatively: is this a case where the reviewing scientist is so patently sexist that s/he should be unmasked in this particular instance – as a public service to the scientific community? Anonymity plays a very specific function in the research process; when it undermines trust in the system of how work is judged, as demonstrated in this case, should it be withdrawn?

I do not ask this question lightly, but rather because we (myself included) often stand by and tolerate quiet sexism within the walls of academia. If this person is evidently biased, then why are we, as an academic community, protecting such clearly sexist behaviour? If key gatekeepers (such as peer reviewers at major journals) are permitted to express their damaging personal biases without any personal cost to their reputations, then it undermines the trust of female scientists in the fairness of the overall “meritocratic” system. This sense of fairness, by the way, has already been systematically undermined in more ways than a letter allows me to express.

Christine Cheng
Lecturer in war studies
King’s College London
@cheng_christine

This piece was first published in Times Higher Education on 7 May 2015.

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