The gender bias in peer reviewing reveals the sexism in academia

Image: Reuters/Manuel Balce
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The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) manifests itself in many ways: in the number of women with degrees in STEM, the number of women with jobs in STEM, and the wage disparity between men and women who work in STEM. Another facet is the gender gap in the peer review process. A new comment piece in Nature finds that women serve as peer reviewers less frequently than men.

This gender gap in peer reviewing has very real consequences for the careers of women in STEM. “Peer review is especially important for the career development of younger reviewers,” says Jory Lerback, a graduate student in geology at the University of Utah and one of the authors of the paper. “It helps you get a view of the frontiers of science in your field, gets you to think more critically, and can also be a really important networking opportunity with other reviewers or editors.”

Peer reviewing also factors into hiring and promotion decisions, impacts job retention, awarding of grants, invitations to conferences, and nominations for awards and forming collaborations with other academics.

The authors analyzed a large data set of 59,316 authors and reviewers from 2012 to 2015 for journals of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). Anyone who submitted a paper to AGU journals in that time frame had to register on the AGU website, and provide their age and gender.

The authors found that from 2012-2015, men on average completed 0.3 more reviews per person than men, and women made up 20% of all peer reviewers in the data set. In comparison, 28% of AGU’s members during that time period were women, which is similar to the ratio of female scientists and engineers employed in the US (29%).

The authors posit two possible reasons for women’s lower participation in peer reviewing: First, authors and editors of papers suggest female reviewers less often than they suggest male reviewers. That bias cuts across genders, though male authors and editors tend to suggest female reviewers less often than women. Female first authors suggested female reviewers 21% of the time, compared to 15% for male first authors;, female editors recommended female reviewers 22% of the time versus 17% for male editors. All of these numbers are significantly less than the 28% of women who make up the field of options.

The second possible reason for fewer female peer reviewers is that women decline invitations to do peer reviews. For example, 22% of women aged 20 to 30 declined invitations compared to 17% for men of the same age. “It might be because of imposter syndrome, they don’t view themselves as experts even if they are,” says Lerback, adding that women could also be declining invitations to peer review because they shoulder extra commitments and don’t have the time. “It could also be that women as an underrepresented group are asked to do more social work in academics such as being on committees, or that they might have more family burdens that take away from that time.”