19 May 2017

Peer Review: A (Not So Much) Gender Perspective

By : A little while back I stumbled upon a paper[1], highlighting the unfortunate position of women in academic fields. More specifically, this paper addresses the issue of a gender-bias in peer-review processes and reports that female authors are not only underrepresented as peer reviewers, but also that they get disproportionally published less because of peer review processes.
According to the authors, this is due to the unconscious bias of publishers who prefer work or select a reviewer of their own sex. Since more men are active within the academic field, this one-sided explanation might satisfy some gender-studies scholars, but couldn’t there be more at play here?
As a PhD researcher at a rather progressive university, I see gender discrimination on a day to day basis, but more of the ‘positive’ kind, in favor of female coworkers and students rather than their male counterpart. Just recently even, several students presented their MSc Thesis, which is pretty much their last obstacle to face before entering the working world. Only this year it had a slightly different aftertaste. See, one student’s father was namely diagnosed with stage-three cancer at the beginning of academic year and was spending his last months on his deathbed at the hospital. I was already impressed that the young man even showed up to his project’s final dissertation.
Now in all objectivity, his work wasn’t well done, but he did enough to obtain a passing grade for the majority of the jury except for one female professor who felt that he `abused’ his dying father’s condition to justify the poor work.
Now, one could compliment the scientific integrity of this professor in keeping her high standards, and to keep professional and personal life separated. But here’s where it gets funny. A female student then came to present her work and, objectively  (I’m speaking for several other jury members and myself), it was beyond horrible. Her actual research, as well as her work, were below academic standards and was by all definitions worse than what the male student (with a dying father) accomplished.
After some jury members started going more in depth, she started crying and mentioned how stressed she was and how tough working towards this deadline has been for her. Finally, when deciding on the grades, the same female professor decided to settle for a `B+’, since it would give her a bit of confidence for her next step in life.
But let’s be clear here, this is not a unique case to begin with. Multiple colleagues of mine have admitted favoring women over boys whether it’s in correcting of exams, assigning grades, simply helping female students more with their work, or simply even answering e-mails (ironically, often out of the fear to be called ‘sexist’). And couldn’t it be that this gender-bias is reflected in the results of this study as well? If women get pushed less, and face less critique during the scientific process, isn’t the rejection they face in peer review due to the poorer quality of work?
If men, get verbally and mentally exhausted, don’t they push themselves more to come back stronger and end up excelling more in their field of work? Even if the gender bias favors men over women, as posed by the authors, how come that so many papers find ambiguous results using double-blind peer reviewed studies and women still publish proportionately less?[2] Can’t the underrepresentation of female peer-reviewers be partially explained by the differences in quality of work?
As much as their answer is one-sided, so does mine only reveal a small fraction of a much larger phenomenon. I do not admit that women are less skilled for an academic career, I even happily admit that some of my female colleagues are way more qualified than I am. But it does not mean that the scientific process that we know should be generalized to fit the sexist narrative we all know we get exposure for.
The real issue might not be sexism that is at play, but rather that the academic world desperately wants it to be sexism.

About Jakob LeFleur

Jakob is a PhD student and connoisseur of coffee and football (not American football, the real one). As a globetrotter, he has lived in 3 continents and visited over 40 countries.

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