Attaining gender balance among managers, editors and reviewers

veritybrownResearch by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that women make up less than 20% of senior academic staff in the majority of EU countries – a surprising statistic when numbers of male and female university students are roughly equal. Verity Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews, talks to Editors’ Update about the possible reasons for this mismatch.

In biological sciences, nearly two thirds of undergraduates are female, while just over half of post-graduates and only 45% of post-doctorates are female. By the time we get to staff level, only 30% are female, and at professorial level the figure stands at just 10% (source: These statistics appear to show women dropping off the academic ladder at every rung. Is an academic career less attractive to women? It is certainly the case that, overall, women in academia are paid less than men. But what are the reasons for this phenomenon? We ask Verity Brown, Editor-in-Chief of Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews and Head of the School of Psychology at St Andrew’s University in the UK, for her opinions.

Asking the right question
“Of course, if women are choosing not to go into academia, or if they’re not progressing at the same rate as men within academia, it should not be surprising that there is a gender pay gap,” explains Brown. “When we conducted a survey at St Andrews, we found that male and female staff performing the same job at the same level were paid equally. The gender pay gap is entirely due to the fact that women disproportionately occupy lower grade positions.”

Similarly, as managers and editors are drawn from the pool of senior academics, it should not be surprising to see a greater number of male editors across Europe. The real question is not ‘why are women paid less than men?’ but ‘why are there fewer women occupying senior academic positions?’

Reasons for the gender gap
Although the proportion of men and women in academia is about equal, women are disproportionately represented in the lower pay-grade positions. There are undoubtedly many factors involved in this phenomenon, but changes in employment legislation in Europe have removed some of the more obvious ones, such as bias in recruitment processes and employment policies. It is apparent that social factors remain highly significant for women considering an academic career.

Brown goes on to explain: “there is a perception that an academic career in the scientific field will not result in a permanent job for up to seven years after a bachelor’s degree. Many women consider this an obstacle to their plans to start a family, and are concerned that they will only just be getting a foot on the career ladder when they are considering having children. The irony is, research and editorial work is actually far more flexible than many other professions, meaning that women could more easily balance the demands of a family with those of their career.”

Realistic role models
Encouraging women to apply for the top jobs might also be a solution. It is widely thought that while men readily put themselves forward for promotion, women might not do so until they are confident that they already have every qualification and criterion required. “We need more female role models within the field,” Brown continues. “But they need to be realistic role models that provide realistic aspirations. With the recent appointment of Louise Richardson as Principal of St Andrews University, for the first time in my career, I will work in an organization with a woman in a senior line-management position – it’s amazing to me that there are still so few women in management roles.”

Multitasking editors
But this gender gap does not just apply to men and women performing university management roles; it also applies to editors, not least because these are often the same people. Among journal editors, there is a difference between so-called ‘figurehead’ editors – big name editors of large journals – and editors of smaller journals. “It may be cliché to say that women are multi-taskers,” Brown explains, “but in the journal world it would be helpful if it were true, because it does seem to be the case that smaller journals that require one editor to perform many roles are often led by women; whereas larger, staffed journals tend to led by men. Of course, the big-name journal editors are usually paid more too. This, again, contributes to the misconception that men and women are paid unequally for the same roles – it’s only to be expected that the editor of a bigger journal would be paid more. What’s unfortunate is that more women are not filling these highly visible figurehead roles.

“Elsevier is different. Unlike society journals, which in the past have often appointed editors following informal enquiries, Elsevier conducts a search for a new editor and follows company guidelines to ensure equal consideration is given to male and female candidates. This way, Elsevier can be sure that the best people are leading its journals and that talent is not overlooked on the basis of gender.”

Reasons to review
One place in which the gender balance is rather different is in the reviewing role. While peer review is a crucial part of the publication process, it is not always a part in which scientists gladly participate. “Scientists may agree to review an article for several reasons,” Brown claims; “a good working relationship with the journal editor is one, but, perhaps more significant, is the article itself. If an article is directly in your field, reviewing gives you the opportunity to find out the latest thinking before it’s published. In addition, a reviewer must chose to balance the ‘service to the discipline’ against other demands on their time. There are no data available to suggest a gender effect on the tendency of reviewers to accept an invitation to review, not least because the gender of the invitee is not always apparent to an editor. However, anecdotally, it does seem to be the case that junior academics are more likely to accept invitations than their senior colleagues. It might, therefore, be important to research whether there is a gender-imbalance in the reviewing system, with women taking a disproportionately large burden of the peer-review process.

The gender pay gap in the scientific world, it seems then, has more to do with the roles women are performing than in fundamental inequality. Optimistically, Brown concludes: “The data indicating gender-imbalance are cross-sectional, so they inevitably reflect past hiring and promotion policies. Academia today is more family-friendly and the prospects for women have never been better. The most important task is to recruit and retain quality female candidates to every academic level, and increase the visibility of women in leadership roles. If we can manage this, the gender pay gap will take care of itself.”

This article was first published in Elsevier Editors' Update. To cite this article, please use: Vicky Hampton, "The gender pay gap among science editors", Elsevier Editors' Update, Issue 23, August 2008

Useful links
European Commission research: Women and science – Gender difference, gender equality

UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology

Wise Campaign (only available to UK residents)

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