Although women entering academia and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields have made major strides, a recent study performed by the editors of Functional Ecology, an ecological research journal, discovered that gender bias is evident at different steps of the scientific publication peer review process.

Recent news reports have stated that women have been breaking barriers in the STEM fields as evidenced by the fact that they are making “major gains in enrollment in engineering and computer science at some of the nation’s most prominent colleges and universities.” However, while females are graduating more and more with degrees in STEM fields, “women account for fewer than 30% of authorships in scientific publications.”

Shifts in understanding about women’s ability in science and technology has continued to evolve, yet culturally, gender bias still exists throughout these disciplines. A recent blog by The Wall Street Journal leadership expert John Greathouse suggested that women in tech should consider using their initials and avoid using photos when creating an online presence; thereby, concealing their gender to expand opportunities that may have otherwise been unavailable. In 2015, Isis Wenger, an engineer at OneLogin, was showcased on a recruiting ad campaign that elicited negative responses based on stereotypes surrounding women in tech fields. Fed up with the stereotypes, Wenger posted a photo to social media with the hashtag, ‪#ilooklikeanengineer. The post went viral and prompted women in tech fields worldwide to post their photos with the same hashtag thus spreading awareness of the attitudes and walls these women encounter in their pursuit of STEM careers.

Seeing that gender bias continues to be an issue in the STEM fields, the recent study performed by the editors at Functional Ecology poses important questions about biases that may still exist in the scientific peer review process. Publish or perish continues to be a measurement of success in academia, and authorship in scientific publications, which measure research efficiency and value, is used as an evaluation when striving for grants, promotions, and tenure. If women are not included in this process, their prospects for career advancement can and may be hindered for years, as we are seeing with the “high rate of attrition of women from science careers because publication success, recognition, and reputation go hand in hand.”

The study uncovered two major results. First, on a positive note, gender did not appear to influence decisions regarding acceptance of papers produced by women. Nevertheless, another issue came to the forefront; the majority of the female authors of manuscripts were first time authors, not senior researchers. The study found very few women in senior-level academic positions. Second, an editor’s academic peer group tended to influence the decisions on who was invited as a reviewer. With so few senior-level women, most reviewers that were invited tended to be men. Although, “female editors invited more women to review than did male editors….” Along with this, a pattern was detected that “men were less likely to respond to invitations and less likely to agree to review papers if the editor was a woman.” These responses could be categorized as implicit bias defined by Jo Handelsman and Natasha Sakraney, of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, as bias that “manifests in expectations or assumptions about physical or social characteristics dictated by stereotypes that are based on a person’s race, gender, age, or ethnicity…. Some behaviors that result from implicit bias manifest in actions, and other are embodied in the absence of action; either can reduce the quality of the workforce and create an unfair and destructive environment.”

Overall, the study noted that addressing this “subconscious bias” is the first step to reversing the trend, which ultimately could undermine a scientist’s academic career thus affecting future promotions and tenure. Continuing efforts should be made to encourage advancement of females to senior-level positions and placement on editorial boards so that they will be given a fair and equal chance at scientific academic publishing. What is harder to address is “eliminating subconscious bias…especially given that men appear to be less likely than women to believe the results of studies on gender bias in science.”

By Jennifer E. Cassou


Photograph reprinted from