Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Why have Lady Editors? A true story of balanced gender representation.

I’m following up on my previous post, to address this question left by an anonymous commenter: 

‘How to square the (thoroughly justified) criticism of a mostly male workshop with the evident pride taken in the production of an "all-woman edited, largely woman-authored" book?’

This is a really good question and I appreciate the opportunity to clarify my comments about Building Babies, the book I co-edited with Kate Clancy and Katie Hinde. To begin, we have to have a reasonable estimate of what we’re shooting for. Fifty/fifty isn’t always representative  for a given discipline. In the case of Building Babies, it is a challenge to estimate what the gender composition “should” have been given that we approached scholars from several disciplines, as our primary goal was to be interdisciplinary. That said, the explicit themes of the book were mothers, pregnancy, infants, breastfeeding, and parent-offspring behavior, subject matter that historically draws female scholars. Further, we drew predominantly from anthropology and psychology, disciplines that in recent years have awarded more PhDs to women than men, approximately 60-70%. Drawing an even finer point on it, from within two already female-dominant fields, many of our scholars self-identified as primatologists, a subdiscipline that historically is female-rich. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that there “should” have been a large female skew to Building Babies.  Another way to get at this is through the analysis of Lynne Isbell, Truman Young, and Alexander Harcourt, who reported that by 2012 women contributed 67% (as first authors) of all primatology-themed presentations at the American Association of Physical Anthropology conference. This is not an exact science, but given the history of the disciplines we tapped, coupled with the fact that many of our authors were recent PhDs or even still ABD and thus hewed closely to the recent statistics indicated above, we should expect that the female:male breakdown in Building Babies is somewhere around 2:1 (perhaps 67-70% vs. 30-33%)

I crunched the numbers for Building Babies, and am pleased to report that the gender breakdown of our total roster of 34 authors across 22 chapters was 68% female, 32% male.  When it comes to just the first authors (which is maybe – but see below - more comparable to being an individual invited to participate in a special workshop), I considered 20 of the 22 chapters because two were equally co-authored by male-female pairs. Of those 20 chapters, the breakdown of first authors was 75% women, 25% men. For at least one of those female-first-authored chapters, the scholar we initially approached was a man, and he invited two of his female trainees to be co-authors, one of whom took on the role of first author. If he had remained first author as invited, the numbers would have been 70% women to 30% men. BOOM!

How does this compare to the Evolutionary Aspects of Child Development and Health Workshop? We have the same challenges we faced estimating the gender breakdown “should” have been. Again, fifty/fifty isn’t necessarily an appropriate measure of accurate representation. While none of the speakers at the workshop are primatologists, they are anthropologists, physiologists, and evolutionary biologists, fields that in recent years have awarded at least 50% of their PhDs to women. With those numbers (and with an assumption that organizers pay attention to gender equity), it would be reasonable to expect at least a fifty/fifty breakdown of speakers. Instead, there are only 2 women out of a slate of 14 speakers, or 14% women, 86% men. That’s six times as many men as women from fields in which the distribution is likely at least equivalent. 

Similarly, Isbell et al. found that when primatological symposia were organized by men, women were underrepresented. Remember that in the context of primatology, a representative sample of women would be about 67%, and when women organized symposia, that’s exactly what Isbell and colleagues saw. In stark contrast, when men organized symposia, only 29% of the first-author presenters were women. Not even fifty/fifty. But at least it’s 29%, not 14%. How does that happen? I don’t believe it is a conscious campaign of omission. Rather it is a very unfortunate oversight, brought to you by the power of implicit bias.

But here’s another thing: It is difficult to equate a publication with an invitation to be a featured speaker. The former is generally highly collaborative, and the first author position is often determined alphabetically because the team deems the contributions to be equally valuable. Indeed, that is how the order of the names of the editors of Building Babies was established.  Even when there is a very clear division of labor, everybody still gets some credit. Every author gets to put it on a CV. Everybody gets to claim a little piece toward tenure and promotion, toward a scholarly profile. To be a featured speaker means that ONE person is being recognized in an important – and individual – way. Certainly that speaker may mention his or her mentors, students, and collaborators in their presentation, but it is solely that person who received the invitation, who was paid the honorarium, who was compensated for their travel and lodging, who gets to include that speaking engagement on their CV, who benefits from networking at the event, and who gains recognition from those contacts and any press that may be there. And collectively, that builds into the kind of profile that can lead to grants, publications, endowed chairs, and major awards. These are the collateral benefits of featured speaking engagements, making the continued benign negligence on the part of conference/ symposia/ plenary/ keynote/ competition organizers so problematic and stifling. It is a kind of gatekeeping, and it’s not all that subtle.

My Building Babies co-editors and I have had many career opportunities. We all have tenure-track jobs at well-respected research universities, and have benefited from speaking engagements, collaborations, and funding. However, our individual successes remain embedded in general patterns of restricted access. As successful academics with a fair amount of professional privilege, it’s our responsibility to say something when we see something. And it’s important not to pull the ladder up with us. My intention in this follow-up post is to address specifically the explicit and implicit questions posed in the comment. Some of us saw something and we said something about it, we got a response, we are moving forward. But it is important to point out that there is a systemic problem of implicit bias in academia (and pretty much everywhere else) that hits non-male, non-white, non-straight (and more!) people pretty hard. 

So yes, anonymous commenter, we are extremely proud that Building Babies was largely woman-authored, and we embrace the fact that it was edited completely by women because that may not so coincidentally be why it is so well balanced along gender lines for the disciplines we targeted. (Of course, one could argue that we shouldn’t be so chuffed up over doing plain old due diligence.)


  1. My impression is that while recent PhDs in the fields invited to the conference in question are predominantly female, more established people in these fields are predominately male. For the sake of simplifying the discussion, let’s assume that this discrepancy is entirely due to bias against females. The line-up of the conference in question clearly was focusing on more senior scientists. Let’s also set aside the issue of whether it is a good idea for a conference to focus so much on featuring the old folks. Given these premises, it doesn’t seem justified to say that the population Pablo and the other conference organizers were picking from was predominately female. I’m not sure the population they are picking from is skewed so far to 14%--but also remember that even with random sampling we would get some variation around the population mean. This is not to say that we don't have other more general problems of bias that need to be addressed--but I am not sure it is fair to blame Pablo for these much larger cultural and structural issues.

    1. I know that many of the men featured in the workshop had very well-established senior female scholars in these fields on their dissertation committees, and many of them have very well-established senior female scholars as current colleagues. (And they are not all the same woman, but actually several!) Thus, the argument that an explicit focus only on senior scholars alone - in this particular field - would have produced such extreme male bias is not supported. That is the blind spot of implicit bias. To your point about "blaming Pablo", I have very clearly contextualized both posts within larger structural issues. Nobody is blaming any single person for the fact that unconscious biases and discrimination exist as powerful barriers to access. That we find ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, our mentors, blindly committing/running into the constraints of implicit bias is worthy of open discussion. That some interpret making the conversation open and attached to actual people that we know as blame is interesting, and also serves, perhaps unconsciously, to further limit the conversation by suggesting those raising the issues are overly sensitive or even vindictive.

  2. I'm strongly supportive of your efforts to increase female representation in general, but I don't see how this addresses the original commenter's question. Your argument seems to boil down to the suggestion that 50/50 is the wrong target to strive for, because there are many more females than male in anthropology and psychology. But surely you appreciate that this is exactly the same argument people use to defend the status quo in fields like physics and CS. Editors and conference organizers will say things like "well, 80% of the field is male, so of course most symposia are going to be male-dominated." Presumably in that case you would argue strenuously that this is an unacceptable defense, because that gender skew itself reflects deep-seated biases that favor men over women. So why is it okay to use exactly the same argument when there are more females than males in a discipline? Shouldn't you and your co-editors have proactively tried to recruit more males in order to try to correct for the bias in anthropology and psychology? Or is the argument that gender bias can only occur in one direction, and the dominance of females in the latter fields is perfectly acceptable culturally?

    (To be clear, I don't actually think you've done anything wrong, and support your efforts--I'm just pointing out that you're justifying your actions in the same way that the people who organize male-dominated symposia do--and I take it that that was the commenter's point.)

    1. There are large scale historical and cultural factors that suggest corrective action is needed to accommodate and accelerate a push toward equity. As Katie Hinde says below, proportional representation is a good minimal goal. I did not argue that it was the responsibility of the workshop organizers to correct all the bias in these fields. Likewise, it wasn't our responsibility to do so. I think our responsibility, minimally, is to put forth panels and publications that reflect the actual composition of the field and when we don't do that, we need to discuss why that is.

      A related but separate issue is to interrogate why the biases exist. Why do anthropology and psychology - and especially primatology - skew female? Is it because men are implicitly or explicitly excluded from those fields? Is it because women get funneled into the social sciences instead of the "hard" sciences due to systemic undervaluing of the social sciences? There are likely many factors at play, and those are beyond the scope of the discussion at hand.

      I disagree with your assertion that I personally would argue strenuously that it would be unacceptable for symposia in fields that have an 80/20 male skew to actually have speakers that reflect that representation. I would be pissed if that was the actual distribution and the speakers skewed 90/10 because that suggests bias beyond the larger cultural factors that shaped the 80/20 skew in the first place. I would then suggest that alongside that panel, the organizers and other people in the field have an open discussion about why the skew is so far from 50/50.

      I am not a nurse but I work in a College of Nursing. Nursing is a profession which historically skews almost entirely female. Is it because men have been actively excluded by the female power structure? Is it because nursing has historically been viewed as "women's work" and thus systemically undervalued? It is reasonable to assume the latter explanation. That said, I can tell you that there are active conversations within the nursing profession at the collegiate level about how to correct the bias, how to encourage more men to join the profession. Because everybody wins. That's the revolutionary thing we're talking about here.

  3. I think that proportional representation is a minimal goal. For fields in which the representation is dismal for some groups, featuring a disproportionate number of under-represented groups can contribute to attracting more individuals of those groups to the field. Otherwise it runs the risk of functionally showcasing that this is a field/topic that has a very clear in-group. In primatology the in groups and out-groups generally fall along other dimensions. Lastly, in Building Babies we were balancing a diversity of goals- multiple disciplines, multiple topics, captive and field research, diversity of taxa AND showcasing some of the cutting edge research being done by a lot of junior scientists both men and women. That was our decision-tree. Given those goals that we managed proportionate representation was pretty darn kickass.