“We have a responsibility”: Elsevier’s Holly Falk-Krzesinski on gender equality in research

Elsevier’s VP of Research Intelligence talks about using a data-informed approach to address gender disparity and bias in research

By Ian Evans - January 22, 2020  8 mins
Holly at Harvard 3
Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski, PhD, Gender Working Group Co-chair and Vice President of Research Intelligence at Elsevier, presents data from Elsevier’s 2017 Gender in the Global Research Landscape report at the Gender Representation in Academia Summit, hosted by the Harvard Data Science Initiative. (Photo by Alison Bert)

In the fourth of our Elsevier Chats, Content Director Ian Evans interviews Dr. Holly Falk-Krzesinski, Gender Working Group Co-chair and Vice President of Research Intelligence at Elsevier.

Holly, we’re talking about gender equality in research today. It’s often described as a critical issue in the world of research, but what makes it so important?

There are two perspectives on this. On the one hand, you can take an empirical view and look at the data, which indicate that gender diversity helps produce more inclusive and reproducible research, and that considering different viewpoints is beneficial to research. And to continue to support a robust research workforce, women must be equally supported to purse career pathways therein. You can also take the perspective of fairness and argue that it’s simply the right thing to do to ensure that women are positioned for success in research as much as men, and doing that means eliminating bias and discrimination — both explicit and implicit — where we find them.

That’s a crucial issue in the world of research for several reasons, from producing more inclusive research, considering different viewpoints, and bolstering the STEM workforce. What role does Elsevier play in driving for more equal gender representation?

Broadly, I see two major elements in our contribution. The first of these is through our gender reports. In March, Elsevier will launch its third report on gender in research, following on from our global report in 2017 and our Germany-focused report in 2015. Elsevier also contributed to the most recent European Commission She Figures report.

Our latest report will further examine critical gender issues and performance in research through a gender lens [Note: this report is now available]. It will include quantitative analyses into new areas and themes — including collaboration networks and career progression — plus a qualitative research component focused on perceptions of gender diversity in academia.

That’s a serious undertaking. What makes Elsevier the right organization to deliver that?

The way I see it is, Elsevier is a steward of the world’s research, and as such, we have an obligation to promote gender diversity and advance gender equity in the global research community. So it’s not exactly a question of whether we’re the right organization to do it – we have significant data assets and analytics expertise that we can bring to bear, so in fact it’s our responsibility to foster a data-informed approach to address critical issues such as gender disparity and bias in research. And through our efforts, we add to a critical body of knowledge that can be used by governments, funders, and institutions worldwide to inspire evidence-based initiatives and policy and inform further studies.

And what has the response from the research community been to the previous reports?

The research community stakeholders we serve and partner with – universities, funders, professional organizations, researchers – have really welcomed them and have been very supportive and enthusiastic about the reports. They came about because we looked outward and saw that there are significant issues that need addressing by sound studies. Promoting gender equity in research is an area where we really have something to offer, both in terms of the quality and breadth of our data and the extent of our analytical expertise. It’s been exciting to see the reports cited in other published research studies, and findings included in presentations at the international Gender Summits.

Holly at Gender Summit Europe 2014
Dr. Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski presents at the 2014 Gender Summit Europe in Brussels.

You mentioned there are two major elements in Elsevier’s work in driving gender equality in research. What’s the second?

Through Elsevier’s Gender Working Group, we have a set of workstreams in place to examine key processes and provide targeted interventions to support equitable and inclusive research. For example, we’ve been working hard to align journal editorial policies related to the reporting of sex and gender in research studies to ensure that we provide strong guidance and support for editors, reviewers and authors who choose to publish in our journals, especially in ways that comply with funder requirements.

What sort of compliance are we talking about there?

Funders like the National Institutes of Health in the United States, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and the European Commission have all adopted various policies that require their grantees – who then become authors with us –  to consider sex as a biological variable from project inception through analysis to published findings. We thus aim to be a good partner to both funders and researchers to integrate sex and gender into research and the reporting on that research.

I see. That covers one element of gender equity in research – producing more accurate research by ensuring sample groups are gender balanced. But what about the research community itself? You mentioned that gender equality in research is necessary in part because it brings in additional viewpoints and addresses the need for more STEM researchers.

That’s right, and we have several initiatives in place that address representation in research when it comes to gender. For example, in our sponsored conferences, we ensure that we no longer have all-male panels. We also built an in-house data dashboard based on the data from previous reports, which empowered our journal publishers to address the issue of gender diversity on editorial boards using an evidence-based approach. They were able to take information about their disciplines to their editors and say, ‘Look, here’s some detail about our community; here are areas where maybe the gender representation isn’t what it should be.’

Holly Falk-Krzesinski and Hannah Valantine
At the 2018 Research Funders Summit, moderator and summit organizer Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski, PhD, introduces speaker Hannah Valantine, MD, MRCP, the NIH’s first Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity. Dr. Valantine will be the keynote speaker at the Gender Symposium 2020 March 18 in Washington, DC. Dr. Falk-Krzesinski is holding up Elsevier’s 2017 report Gender in the Global Research Landscape, which cites Dr. Valantine’s research.

That seems like it could be a tricky conversation to start.

Absolutely, and I’m a believer that a data-informed discussion is a more effective approach than accusation. What we absolutely didn’t want to do was point fingers and say, ‘Hey, there aren’t enough women on this editorial board – you’re at fault.’ We considered a more productive approach to use the data and conversation to increase awareness, consider the current state, and develop plans for change toward greater gender diversity with concrete milestones.

And is it working?

We have indeed seen progress! For our sponsored conferences, the percentage of women invited speakers has more than doubled to over 32 percent. And let me share a great story that our CEO, Kumsal Bayazit, relayed at the Gender Summit Europe in Amsterdam. The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal had an editorial board with 5 women and 22 men, all of them longstanding, loyal team members. The editor wrote to 11 of them regarding the need for greater inclusion and better gender balance, and 10 immediately responded by agreeing to step down. That board now has 12 women and 11 men. I know that there’s still more work to do, and we have both top-down and bottom-up commitments to continuing to do so.

What a great example.

Yes. You know, some of the early initiatives I was involved in were the Gender Summits, which are supported by the Elsevier Foundation. Through our involvement, I saw that there was a lot of valuable information and experience being shared, but that there was also a need for more data and supporting evidence. Especially because the world of research is so broad, comprised of so many different fields of study and geographies. As a scientist, I’m all about data and evidence – and thought about how we might contribute to fill that gap.

And was that the point where you saw how Elsevier could play a useful role in driving gender equality in research?

Yes. Around the same time, the National Science Foundation and the NIH – two of the largest research funders in the United States – each put out a call to action of sorts about the need for data and evidence on issues of gender and diversity. I said, ‘This is it – this is where we can add value in a really unique and meaningful way.’ Our Analytical Services team was already looking into methodology and using Scopus data for inferred gender disambiguation of authors, and we had a lot of support from our senior management. Getting that underway and turning it into what became our first global gender report in 2017 was a big accomplishment, and I’m proud to have been part of the collaborative effort that made it happen.



Elsevier Chats

Throughout Elsevier, we share the research community’s belief in what science can achieve. This is a series of informal chats with people at Elsevier, sharing their work-in-progress thinking on the pressing topics of today and the future.

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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