Improving gender equality within the academic community 

The importance of gender balance for editorial teams

The journal Colloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces (COLSUB) operates at the intersection of Physics, Chemistry and Biology and has a team of editors that is rather unusual for those fields.  The journal has four editors - two women and two men - each with their own areas of expertise. We asked them how it felt to have a gender-balanced team within relatively male-dominated disciplines.  Are there benefits to be had or is it essentially a moot point?

Colloids and Surfaces BColloids and Surfaces B: Biointerfaces papers have applications for the medical, pharmaceutical, biotechnological, environmental, food, and cosmetic fields. The journal is rapidly growing in terms of citations and articles submitted and downloaded. The gender-balanced editorial team comprises: John Brash, McMaster University, Canada; Hong Chen, Soochow University, China; Dganit Danino, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Israel; and Henk Busscher, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands.

Here’s what COLSUB's editors had to say:

  • The 50-50 situation is preferable because people feel more natural in a mixed environment which is more representative of real life. However, our field is definitely male dominated, so this is pretty unusual.
  • The actual work of managing the journal is not handled any differently, but there is an element of fairness in having a gender-balanced team.

The COLSUB editors: (left to right) John Brash, Hong Chen, Dganit Danino and Henk Busscher.

  • We’re just missing out on talent if we don’t represent and include women scientists.
  • A balanced team can make it easier to convince a publisher to take a certain course of action. Women have a different way of negotiating which can be more effective than the “head butting” you often get in all-male environments.
  • No doubt about it: it’s definitely good for a journal’s profile and women editors often contribute a great deal to the journal’s visibility by doing more outreach at conferences etc.
  • We’ll know gender balance is complete when you don’t have to have these kinds of discussions any more.
  • Last, but not least, it makes our meetings more fun!

And their publisher, Rob van Daalen…

Rob van Daalen“As a publisher in Chemistry I am responsible for 15 journals and for most of my journals, women editors represent a minority. I have noticed a change in the Colloids and Surfaces B team since the team became gender balanced. Cooperation, collaboration, and communication are often seen as female strengths and I definitely see this in our meetings. Decisions and consensus are reached in a more harmonious way."

But why exactly are gender-balanced editorial teams important?

We asked the CEO of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), Janet Bandows Koster, to weigh in on why gender equity or parity on editorial teams and boards is important. She said: “In a nutshell, diverse groups make better decisions and produce higher quality science.  A 2013 study published in Plos One demonstrated that a gender-heterogeneous, problem-solving team generally produced higher quality journal articles than a team comprised of high-performing individuals of the same gender. In addition, publications produced by gender-diverse working groups received 34 percent more citations than those produced by all male teams.

Koster bookJanet Bandows KosterJanet Bandows Koster recently co-authoredEquitable Solutions for Retaining a Robust STEM Workforce: Beyond Best Practicesaddressing work-life integration issues faced by those in STEM careers. It features 12 case studies from the Elsevier Foundation’s New Scholars program.

Preliminary findings from a recent AWIS study also indicate that gender and ethnic diversity on award nomination and selection committees lead to more equity in the scholarly award process. And other studies have shown that women who are outnumbered by men in a group are much less likely to speak their mind. The statistics are quite staggering here:women speak 75 percent less than men when outnumbered by men, which means you’re losing out on the kind of diversity which has been shown to improve decision-making and, ultimately, the science produced.”

Koster continued: “I’d also like to point out that the equal representation of women on boards is important because men often have an elevated status in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based on implicit bias. We’ve found that a conscious effort must be made to balance committees and boards as it won’t happen on its own.”

With these insights from AWIS, we turned to see what other publishers are doing to balance their boards. Emilie Marcus, CEO of Cell Press, explained: “At Cell Press we aim to be vigilant about implicit bias. Whether we’re looking for the right speaker for a conference or an editorial board member, we want excellence and diversity and the best way to achieve that is to identify selection criteria for quality that don’t stack the deck in favor of a particular career stage, geographical location or gender.  At Cell, 75 percent of our in-house editors are women, and in our external editorial board, the ratio of men to women is roughly 75-25.

Emilie Marcus"When I became the Editor-in-Chief of Cell 14 years ago, you definitely saw a recognizable trend at the flagship journals - all the top editors were male. That is beginning to change now.  I am a very strong proponent of diversity leading to better decision making and, ultimately, better science. Once any decision-making group becomes too skewed towards one of these elements, it becomes entrenched and unconsciously exclusionary.  This then becomes very hard to change, and leads to a group that is less agile and responsive to new influences. And that’s when you risk compromising the science.”

At Elsevier, we have long been working to improve gender equality within the academic community through initiatives such as The Elsevier Foundation. You can read more about the Foundation’s activities and other relevant projects in the category dedicated to Women in Science on Elsevier Connect. We aren’t alone. In a 2013 article, Gender progress (?), Nature shone a spotlight on its gender equity record. In the News & Views section, the proportion of female authors had increased from 12 percent in 2011 to 19 percent in 2013. The proportion of women appearing in profiles by Nature journalists had increased from 18 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2013. But the number of articles by women in their World View section remained low at 12 percent, as did the overall number of women reviewers at 13 percent in 2013. Unfortunately, they have no quick fixes to share, only the lessons of driving awareness and taking active steps to ensure gender balance whenever feasible.

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