Monday, November 21, 2011

S/he

Can you think of a (good) reason why a journal would need to know the gender of authors and reviewers?

A reader wrote to me with this question, as a result of being required to select a gender-revealing option when registering on a journal's website. This option was separate from one asking for the professional title (Prof., Dr., Prof. Dr. etc.). It was not possible for this person, even after communicating with journal staff, to register without checking this box. In fact, the journal staff insisted that this information was essential because otherwise communication was too difficult and would involve the awkward use of "he/she" in letters, or perhaps embarrassing mistakes if the gender of the person wasn't clear from their name.

I can think of reasons why a woman would not want reviewers and editors to know her gender, but I can't think of a good reason why reviewers and editors would need to know the gender of an author or reviewer. It occurred to me that a journal might want to keep track of how many papers are published by male vs. female authors (or lead authors, in fields that make this distinction), but that is not the reason the journal gave to the reader who wrote to me about this issue. In that case, the concern was making embarrassing mistakes in using pronouns in correspondence or that someone would be offended if referred to as he/she instead of by the correct pronoun.

If a journal did want to keep track of gender data, those data could be separated from individual papers, so that editors and reviewers did not see it for any particular individual or paper. 

If you are writing to someone whose gender you do not know, why would you even use he/she or his/her in direct correspondence with them? This is a real question. Am I overlooking something?

In my role as editor and reviewer, I do not need it; 'you' is nice and direct, or I use the person's name or title. In correspondence about someone, I can use their title, a term such as "Reviewer 1" (if they are anonymous, you shouldn't use a pronoun anyway), or I refer indirectly to "the author/s", depending on context. The journal with which I am most closely involved is based in Europe, with close ties to Asia, North America, and Australia. It is more formal than many North American-based journals in its correspondence traditions, but even so, we do not need to know the gender of authors or reviewers.

Yes, I know about Frau Professor, Herr Professor etc., but those can be options for those who prefer those titles. There should not a requirement to inform a journal of your gender before you submit a paper or review an article.

29 comments:

Alex said...

OTOH, if they are determined to have this data then they might as well put it to good use, and track things like acceptance rates for papers with male or female corresponding authors, or whether the fraction of female reviewers matches the fraction of submissions with female corresponding authors, etc.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

It is often difficult for me to remember the gender of a person I haven't met, and I have occasionally embarrassed myself a little by referring to someone with the wrong pronoun. But I see no reason to include the gender of authors or reviewers in any registration form. If someone doesn't want to provide their gender, then they have to put up with generic pronouns—it is no real trouble in English to use the plural pronoun which has no gender.

The senseless forms that one has to fill out and that don't allow anything to be left blank are extremely annoying.

I object to web sites (like airlines) that insist that I provide a title (am I Dr.? Mr.?—I never use either title, and the airlines don't provide Prof. as an option). At work, I use my first name or my last name, generally without any title, so hearing my name with a title always sounds like being called down to the principal's office—it is too formal to be anything but bad news.

I also object to sites that require my middle name—my last name is unusual (fewer than 100 in the world) and my combination of first and last name is unique, so why do they need my middle name?

Anonymous said...

Im sorry but I seem to be missing the point here a little? I guess it might be that I am male and cannot think of the reasons you can. The likely reality is that the software they use to generate their letters uses M/F formats and without a user generated response they would need to run some sort of assessment upon the name or some other data(far more intrusive analysis) and make a guess at the gender to supply to their other software. I will admit that there are possibly ways that this could be used in some negative manner...I really cannot see what a journal could gain from it?

The heat Nature is taking over the piece of fiction they ran is only a fraction of what a journal found to be misusing this data would be I would think. Its obvious that any potential negative action would have to have some huge positive impact on the journal(I cant think of any?) to justify that risk. There are also likely financial penalties attached to them sharing such data with 3rd parties or selling it. Thus it seems the question is likely innocuous?

Also, I too would have been confused/annoyed by the justification given and think the matter should be pressed further. Still, what could really come from answering a question to "inform a journal of your gender"?

Digbijoy Nath said...

I've no comments on whether asking one to reveal one's gender is a good or bad thing, but I've always wondered why women/girls always complain or make a fuss whenever the 'gender revealing' issue pops up ! I'm not sure, but may be revealing gender is offensive - I don't know.

mOOm said...

In English we really don't need to know gender as we can write they/their and you, I etc. have the same verb forms etc. for male and female. But in other languages (French, German, Hebrew for example) it would be embarrassing to not know the correct gender.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm bothered by the requirement that one must select a gender, too. There is no valid scientific reason for needing to know an author's gender; it doesn't affect the quality of the science. And as far as the s/he on forms...I don't care. I'd much rather risk a less personalized form letter than someone finding out my gender and forming prejudgments about me and my work.

Of course, I also don't put my first name on my website (just initials and last name) and I don't include a photo of myself on my website, either. Until I'm a more established scientist, I'd rather keep my gender private and avoid biases and discrimination.

Anonymous said...

I think gender information is totally irrelevant to science and scientific publication, no need to know anything about author(s)' gender for an editor or a reviewer.

I am so sorry for continuation to discuss, research and publish related to the topic of Women Studies in 21. Century. What a shame for the Homo Sapiens.

Anonymous said...

@ Digbijoy Nath

Assuming you are not just trolling:

"I've always wondered why women/girls always complain or make a fuss whenever the 'gender revealing' issue pops up"

I've always wondered why men always over-generalise, so that a few comments by a few women about a specific situation becomes "always making a fuss".

"I'm not sure, but may be revealing gender is offensive"

I'm not sure*, but maybe men and women are not always treated equally? Often due to unconcious biases? So in situations where gender should not matter, not revealing gender may improve the chances of equal treatment?
It's not hard to understand.

(*Actually , I'm pretty sure , given evidence like this: Nature 387 341–343; 1997)

Anonymous said...

Because women are routinely not taken seriously because they are women. Look at the MIT study necessary to grant women equal size offices for their rank and productivity. To be sure, MIT rectified the situation when presented with the date, but that isn't typically how these things workout. Also look at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (I think), which routinely selected men, until they started doing blind auditions.

CXW said...

For the two previous commenters who are wondering why it matters and why it's women who kick off about it, it is because being "outed" as nominally female often carries penalties in terms of how one's work is perceived, regardless of how objective the reviewer/editor thinks ze (yes, that's a gender neutral pronoun) is being. Like it or not, our assumptions about female scholars run deep, no matter how hard we try and control for them.

Interestingly, a similar bias has been observed in relation to sexuality and people's perceptions of a faculty member's objectivity - knowing someone is lesbian/gay increases students' perception that the faculty member has a political agenda, regardless of the reality (see Anderson, K.J. and Kanner, M. (2011) 'Inventing a Gay Agenda: Students' Perceptions of Lesbian and Gay Professors', Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41)6): 1538-1564).

Two other factors to consider are that a) not everyone identifies as M/F and b) gender is such a non-rigorous biometric identifier that it is not used by the UK military at high levels.

Final point: just because it's on a form by default does not mean it shouldn't be challenged if there is no good reason (other than by convention) for it to be there. As for the idea that if users did not provide the information there would need to be a process to assign users a gender, this completely misses the point - why is the information required in the first place, especially when in practice it is not "innocuous" information?

Liz said...

This sounds quite reasonable to me. When corresponding in a language with gender specific pronouns, sometimes it does just make life easier.

I am currently a reviewer for a paper that has had a couple of rounds of back and forth between authors, editors, and reviewers and has involved some clarification from the author. In these instances, the editor has written to the reviewers: "The author notes blah blah blah and he has clarified blah". In this case I already know that author's gender from his common gender- specific first name so it is not an issue of anonyminity

Old Biddy said...

There have been numerous studies in which identical CVs/resumes were sent in which only the name was different (obviously male name and obviously female name). The response to resumes with male names was on average a lot more positive. So I can understand that people would want to avoid this.
A less obvious thing is that by putting a tag on people we reinforce their gender and assumptions about it, even when we know their gender anyway. An example of this is when students are ask to self select a box before taking a math test. In one group, students were asked to fill in some non-gender related piece of information (i.e. home state) or none at all. In the control group, they were asked to select male vs female for their gender. Female students did worse on the test when they filled out the gender information than when they filled out the random factoid, probably because they've been told all their lives that women are worse at math. Unfortunately, women are still considered the outliers in science, so having a M/F tag next to the authors name may reinforce people's unconscious bias.
So no, I don't want that M/F tag next to my name on all the information that goes to the editors and referees. It's fine if they send me a separate form for tracking composition of their author pool.

Anonymous said...

The journal already has the author/reviewer's name (presumably given name and family name combination), and this information is so indicative of gender in the majority of cases, that refusing to disclose one's sex on a form, seems to have little privacy value. Furthermore, many author/reviewers maintain public webpages with photographs or other information that would give this information away.

In previous posts, FSP has expressed mild displeasure at being referred to by the incorrect gender-specific pronoun, so I would expect her to be in favor of a mechanism to reduce such confusions.

I, perhaps naively, expect a journal to review submissions on their merits, and to ignore irrelevant details such as the gender composition of its authors. I prefer blind review in conferences, and I'd rather have journal submissions be similarly blind, but most in my field are not.

Anonymous said...

Digbijoy - one of several reasons that women/girls, as you suggest, might not like to have their identities revealed is because studies have proven that when the same CV is shown to a pool of evaluators (i.e., as part of a mock interview or grant application, something like that), the evaluators will be less impressed by the CV with the woman's name on it than the one with the man's name on it *even when the CVs are identical* (see, for example, http://www.springerlink.com/content/h60217k42618223t/). So, according to these results, by not revealing their gender, women can hope to be evaluated more fairly.

Cherish said...

I'm not sure if this would be an issue, but could they potentially be trying to increase the number of publications by females? If so, they may not want to be forthcoming about that fact and therefore give you another reason. There's also the issue that perhaps the editor knows certain reviewers are unfriendly toward women and therefore needs to know to avoid these issues. I'm not sure. I have no idea why a reviewer would need that info, however. In most of my submissions, I usually use initials for my first and middle name to obscure gender(although having a hyphenated last name probably doesn't help). I've never been directly asked anything about sex, and I think it would make me awfully suspicious as well.

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 12:44 and Digbidoy: many of those of use who have a female gender have found that there is often a subtle unconscious bias against us when our gender is revealed. Before a paper is even read, for example, a different expectation of that paper has been formed in the mind of the reader if that reader knows the gender of the author. I even do it myself sometimes, even though I'm a woman, though I try to be conscious of it. Try it yourself sometime: read some journal articles that have authors only identified by their first initial (or have someone else scrub the names for you) -- try to find ones with only a single author if possible. Make an opinion of the article. Then talk about the article with someone. More than likely you'll use male pronouns when referring to the author(s). Then find out if the author(s) *were* in fact male or female. And try talking about the paper again.

It's also been shown in studies of things like review of resumes in industry and in acceptance of applications to colleges -- gender affects the way people judge you and your work, usually unconsciously, and often to the detriment of those of us who are female. So many of us often prefer to have that bit of information scrubbed so that our work can be judged without the subtle anti-
female bias.

But I also agree with Anon at 12:44 that the *real* reason they're unwilling to scrap the male/female box on the form is likely that it would be difficult and costly for them to modify their electronic systems to remove it. Journal editors are not necessarily tech-savvy enough to do it themselves and hiring someone to do so would be expensive. Ergo, a deceptive answer about "needing" the information to avoid embarrassment.

Anie said...

The question is probably innocuous. But, to commentors who are confused by why many women object to being required to reveal gender:

It's because as soon as it becomes obvious that you are a woman, people think less of you. Think that you are less smart, less driven, less even-keeled---maybe think that your papers are less careful and less exciting. I've seen people's attitudes towards a paper change when they found out the author was a woman---and the people I'm talking about are quite committed to gender equality. For women, gender is a liability.

The glass ceiling still exists, and frankly, if a paper of mine gets rejected, I want to know that it's 100% because it wasn't worthy (and not because the reviewer had any sort of potential bias because of my gender).

Anonymous said...

Digbijoy, I make a fuss because there is a chance that it is less likely that my paper will be accepted because I am female. Studies on this hypothesis have demonstrated significant gender discrimination in some situations and little or none in others. How do I know which journal I'm submitting to?

Effect of introduction of double-blind reviews on rate of acceptance of female-author articles

A less formal study that examines several factors

Anonymous said...

In many fields/areas women are in such minority that revealing the gender would take away the anonymity of the reviewer.

And then there are studies that show different acceptance rates for the same paper depending on whether it was submitted by John X or Jane X.

GMP said...

I've always wondered why women/girls always complain or make a fuss whenever the 'gender revealing' issue pops up ! I'm not sure, but may be revealing gender is offensive

Digbijoy, I am sure others will address this issue too, but I can't not comment. Revealing one's gender is not offensive. Revealing one's gender in situations where one is evaluated has been shown time and time again to disqualify women disproportionately. There are studies that show that, after you remove the names, the percentage of women candidates getting interviews for jobs goes up; when musicians audition behind a screen so they are only heard not seen, the percentage of women musicians selected is much higher; there is a famous test where the exact same paper was signed by John Doe, Jane Doe, and J. Doe and students were told to evaluate it; the one by Jane Doe scored considerably lower than J. Doe and John Doe. People unconsciously devalue the work of women. I myself have stopped putting anything but my first initial on any paper I submit long ago, in order to avoid this unconscious bias before the person even reads my paper. Senior women in mine and related fields have strongly recommended it.

Barefoot Doctoral said...

Digbijoy,

I think the issue here is that there is evidence that when some editor, or reviewer, or hiring committee chair knows that an applicant is female (or black, or gay, or what have you) conscious or unconscious biases kick in against the candidate. Therefore, a woman revealing gender actively puts her at a disadvantage in these cases. Therefore, it is better for a woman to not identify gender, since she usually doesn't know whether or not this bias against her is going to kick in.

Also, if a female is over the age of 18, you probably shouldn't refer to her as girl, unless you want to wonder where that fuss is coming from as well. I don't know if that's what you meant in your comment, of if you had specific instances of very self aware minors in mind.

Anonymous said...

One other reason the reader may be protesting against the required selection (or some people would) is that websites usually only give one the choice between Male/Female. Many LGBT people do not identify with either gender. Including the option "Other" or "Prefer not to answer" would be great but only happens rarely. Your suggested gender-neutral terms are also applicable to this situation.

Anonymous said...

I agree, this is absolutely absurd, and I wonder if it is even legal in the US. Is this a scientific journal?? Besides, surely scientists realize that intersex people exist. I'd suggest writing a letter to the editor to be published in the journal and/or a letter to the editor of your scientific society newsletter or other public forum. If it's a for-profit journal, they'll probably pay attention.

@gasstationwithoutpumps: I also hate the middle name thing. I just leave it blank in that space -- it usually works, because not everyone has a middle name.

To Love What is Mortal said...

A good reason to ask for this information is if you hope to discriminate against the author. Hard to effectively discriminate if you do not know for sure if a person is male or female!

Anonymous said...

Yes - and then we have individuals who do not fall along clear gender lines. 1 out of 1000 live births are not clearly classifiable as male or female.

I think requesting gender information is fine, but requiring it is not acceptable. If such information is requested, more than two options (male or female) really should be included.

James Annan said...

Digbijoy, the obvious problem is that it provides an (additional) opportunity for discrimination, subconscious or not, that simply does not need to exist. If the journal was using this info to track its gender equality, then there is no reason why it should not have said so, and otherwise, I see no good reason for asking for this info.

Kea said...

As with blind auditions for musicians, which increased female participations in orchestras (in some places) by 30%, the situation for women publishing in STEM fields will never improve until a blind-review process is implemented. Such a process also eliminates discrimination based on race, ethnicity, institution and so on.

Of course there are no good reasons for failing to implement this process. The Boys Club simply don't want to yield their power. I doubt this is unconscious at all, but is probably fully intentional.

Female Science Professor said...

My objections in the past have not been to being called by the wrong gender-specific word, but by the use of these in irrelevant settings. That is, being addressed as "Dear Sir" in a letter from a student is not offensive because the person did not know I am not a "Sir", but because of the assumption that all professors are male.

In another case I have discussed, I did not think that women professors should have been addressed at a conference as "Mrs" (which is gender and marriage-status specific) when their male peers were addressed as "Professor" in the same setting. It would have been appropriate to call the women professors "Professor" as well, and not single them out for a different, less relevant title.

I am sure there are some cultural issues here that I am not understanding, but if there is a relevant gender-neutral title that can be used, why not use it?

Digbijoy Nath said...

@ all: thanks for the detailed clarification...and thanks to 'anons' who responded to my post with a positive spirit or with a sarcastic attitude - I acknowledge that I've got a clearer picture of gender biasedness with the posts following mine.

Man ! I just had a geniune question and I got so many replies from (mostly) female persons !!

Well, probably I've seen and experienced, as a passive spectator, gender discrimination ten times worse than anyone of you have ever thought of...i am born and brought up in a society where the wife has to put up with her husbad's s**t, where a woman always has to be suppressed, dominated and micro-managed by her husband...so I can safely bet I know about gender discrimination pretty well. My bad luck though it seems from your posts - I believed in a place like USA or Europe - developed parts of the world - gender biasedness would be very negligible...that was my hope...but I was wrong it seems !


I however hate even the idea that a woman's work should be even viewed with a biased outlook even unconsciously
...I mean, what's there to 'unconsciously' look down upon
a woman's work ? People say gender makes a difference
in ones scientific work - are you serious ? it's hilarious and pathetically rdiculous how
one can consider someone's work as inferior just because
one is female !!