How to reduce the gender gap in one (relatively) easy step

October 1, 2013

This is the second post in our gender gap symposium (see here for the first by Jane Mansbridge). We are delighted to welcome B.F. Walter, a Professor of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California at San Diego. B.F. Walter is an expert on international security and regularly blogs about security issues at Political Violence at a Glance. Walter is one of the co-authors of the citation article that motivates this symposium.

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I’ve been in academia for 20 years.  During that time I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many talented male and female scholars.  I’ve also watched a disproportionate number of the female scholars in this group drop out of grad school, be denied tenure and fail to reach the highest levels of professional success.  As one of the few women who have made it to full professor at an elite research university, I often ask myself, “Where have all the women gone?”

In August, the New York Times reported that gender bias and outright sexual harassment appeared to be endemic in the field of philosophy.  This article was followed by a second one that reported a gender gap in grades at Harvard Business School, which appeared to the result of gender biases in the school’s culture and practices.  This should come as no surprise to many women in higher education who have long suspected that the road to success was harder for them than their male counterparts.

These arguments, however, have often been met with skepticism, in part because no hard data have existed to back them up.  One could, for example, argue that women are failing to rise through the ranks of elite universities because they are less productive, publish in less prestigious journals, choose topics that are less central to core debates, or because they are more likely to choose to teach at liberal arts colleges.  In other words, it’s possible that the differential outcomes for men and women at the highest levels of academia have everything to do with the choices women make and very little to do with any systematic bias against them.

So which is it?  Are women doing worse than men in academia because of the choices they are making or because gender bias has made their path to advancement more difficult?  To answer this question, Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers and I collected hard data.  Lots of it.   We were particularly interested in data on the gender of authors and the citation counts of the articles they wrote.  We looked at citation counts because they are increasingly used as a key measure of a scholar’s performance and impact.  The more citations a scholar receives, the more influential he or she is perceived to be, and the more likely he or she is to get hired, promoted and financially rewarded.

The first thing we did was look at more than 3,000 articles published between 1980 and 2006 in 12 leading peer-reviewed international relations journals.  We then controlled for every possible factor that could contribute to one’s citation count including the quality of the publication, its venue, methodology, the subject matter, and the researcher’s home institution (to name a few).  We suspected that an article written by a tenured professor from an elite university, published in a top journal and written on a popular topic would get more citations than an article written by an untenured professor at a liberal arts college on an esoteric topic in a second-tier journal.  What we didn’t know was whether gender would matter once you held all of these factors constant.  Did knowing the gender of the author make other scholars cite an article more or less?

The results were striking.  Even when we controlled for an enormous range of factors, gender remained one of the best predictors of how often an article would be cited.  If you were female, your article would get about 0.7 cites for every 1 cite that a male author would receive.

This paper has garnered a lot of press here, here, and here, not because it’s telling us something we hadn’t already suspected but because the data are incontrovertible.  Crunch the numbers in different ways and the results are always the same: articles written by women in IR are cited less than men, all else equal.

The question then becomes, what can we do about it?  In the paper, we offered four suggestions.  Women can cite themselves more (another interesting finding of the paper was that women self-cite less than men).  Faculty mentors can help women network so that they are better incorporated into what is still a very male-dominated profession.  Faculty can make sure that their syllabi don’t rely disproportionately on male authors, a practice that only perpetuates a gender imbalance in citations.  And journal editors can pay attention to citations in the articles they accept to ensure that this bias doesn’t continue.

But there’s another potentially easy solution: anonymity. What if we set up evaluations in academia so that we never knew the gender of the person being evaluated (or at the very least downplayed it as much as possible)?  Anne-Marie Slaughter suggested this recently at a conference panel on the subject.  This would be akin to what elite symphony orchestras did in the United States in the 1970s.  Prior to adopting anonymous auditions in which candidates sat behind screens when they played, less than 5 percent of all musicians in these orchestras were women.  Once blind auditions were instituted women were 50 percent more likely to make it out of the preliminary rounds and significantly more likely to ultimately win the job.  Today, 25 percent of all musicians in these elite orchestras are women.

Credit: B.F. Walter
Credit: B.F. Walter

What if we did the same in academia?  What if the norm for scholars was to identify themselves only with their first initial and last name when submitting an article for review and publication?  This would make it more likely that initial impressions about the quality of scholarship were based on the work itself and not the author’s gender.  This already occurs in some journals in the sciences, where – it turns out – the citation gap appears to be less prominent [gated].  And what if we extended this to the classroom where student work was identified only by a number?  Both of these practices would eliminate any conscious or unconscious bias professors, reviewers and editors might have when assessing the quality of a piece of work.  More well-established scholars would not benefit (or suffer) from this procedure since their identity would already be known by their initials.  Instead, the benefits of gender-blind initials (or numbers) would accrue most heavily to young, unknown scholars who are most vulnerable to bias and most in need of a level playing field.  (Not surprisingly, it is untenured women who were the least likely to be cited.)

So why not institute the norm of using initials in all our work so that the youngest and most at risk scholars will have a fighting chance to make it up the ranks?  Perhaps then we’ll see fewer highly talented researchers drop out of the profession well before their prime.

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.
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Erik Voeten | October 1, 2013