Bar graph and line graph showing the gap between percentage of women in 'Scientist' vs. 'Editor' or 'Editor-in-Chief' roles

The Great Imbalance: Gender Inequality in Academic Publishing

By Sarah Fahim

Gender inequality persists in STEM, and the gap grows wider as you ascend the hierarchy of roles. For example, in medical journals — only one in five editors-in-chief is a woman, and lead editors who identify as nonbinary are barely represented. As outlined in figure 1, this gender inequality gap has grown over time (1970 – 2010) for editorship among women.

Bar graph and line graph showing the gap between percentage of women in 'Scientist' vs. 'Editor' or 'Editor-in-Chief' roles
Figure 1: The gap between percentage of women in ‘Scientist’ vs. ‘Editor’ or ‘Editor-in-Chief’ roles (1970 – 2010) Source

This article aims to shed light on some of the key areas where this inequality in academic publishing is known to persist. Researchers have reviewed empirical studies from the past decade to assess this trend based on evidence, rather than on mere observation or conjecture. In an exhaustive literature review published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, they show a surprisingly large disconnect between research-active women and women who are editors in chief. They also reveal a gap between editors and editors in chief who are research active and those who are not, regardless of gender, and how the gender gap might persist in self-publishing. Their study collects and analyzes a dataset of 103,000 editors, 240 million authors, and 220 million publications spanning five decades and 15 disciplines.

By examining this data, we can easily observe underrepresentation trends based on gender: women are already underrepresented in science, participating at a rate of just 26%; the gap persists at 14% for those at the editorial level, and it is at just 8% for those who have achieved the rank of editor in chief. The gap appears to narrow as we consider seniority levels, although the larger underrepresentation of women in science, and factors other than career duration or seniority, are likely at play at the editor-in-chief level. The gap continues despite the fact that the proportion of female postgraduate students has risen to at least 50% in many disciplines for some time.

The dataset also offers insight into how both gender and hierarchy impact the rate of self-publication, which refers to publishing in journals where they recently assume editorial roles. Eight percent of editors in chief self-publish twice as much as they did before taking on this role. Interestingly, male editors in chief engage in self-publication more than women at the senior-most levels.

Sarah FahimSarah Fahim is a senior researcher in usability and advertising at VMLY&R New York, based in Boston. She specializes in advertising research methods and behavioral science, focusing on gender and cultural research spaces. Her research can be found in Texas ScholarWorks and the American Association of Advertising Agencies. In her free time, Sarah writes spoken word poetry in hopes of self-publishing her art one day.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.