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Women in research - Elsevier's perspective

July 27, 2022 | 6 min read

By Katie Eve, Christopher Tancock

Women scientists vector illustration

Elsevier strives to erode barriers to women taking on editorial roles, but we must continue to identify new challenges and collaborate on solutions

Through our ongoing series of interviews with women in research, we have been examining the issues women experience throughout the research world, especially when undertaking editorial roles. In doing so, we aim to explore solutions and continue the conversation about how we — together — can advance gender balance in editorial teams.

In recognition of their work and/or profile in the field, women are increasingly being invited into editorial roles on journals, as Board members, guest editors or lead editors. This is a profoundly good thing for those individuals and for research: As Emily Mendenhall neatly puts it: “Having multiple perspectives leading the journal is crucial … ensuring that [a] myriad [of] voices are valued and elevated.”.

We’re targeting (greater) diversity in editorial roles directly — and have been for some time

In 2016, we began engaging editors on the importance of gender-balanced editorial teams. One observation often made by our colleagues who manage journal portfolios is that, while men will often put themselves forward, women rarely request to join journals as Board members or editors. The onus is on us, then, together with editors, to actively seek women candidates for vacancies. Simple rules such as banning men-only candidate lists can be helpful in this regard.

Part of women’s reluctance to self-advocate likely stems from a lack of role models. Sarah Spurgeon opines: “It is helpful that there are more women visible in such roles. At all career stages, the availability of role models is in my view very important in encouraging others.

”We have sought to promote transparency and accountability within our journals, both in terms of editorial team diversity and journals’ ambitions to further equity, diversity & inclusion more broadly. Over 1,000 Elsevier titles now display self-reported data on their handling editors’ gender identities and over half of our journals have published pledges committing to improving diversity in their editorial teams with defined objectives. Other women notice this, and the participation of their peers normalizes women’s involvement."

We recognize that women have many responsibilities that limit the time they have available for editorial work

Even when invited to undertake editorial roles, accepting is often not a straightforward decision for women, who traditionally and persistently shoulder the lion’s share of caregiving in their home lives, and pastoral roles in their professional lives. “It is often the case that women have many hats to wear (house, children, academic position, research, industry, and other roles…),” points out Heimar de Fatima Marin. “Very often women, especially women in STEM fields, are in high demand for service roles in their home institutions as well as in service to the field,” notes Susan Sinnott. This situation has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic: “The pandemic has dramatically exposed these gender inequality structures and demonstrated the urgency of eliminating them,” comments Anna Holthaus.

While we certainly don’t have all the answers, for some time we have been looking at how our journals can accommodate women’s unique caregiver roles. For example, as we shape editorial teams, we consider editorial workload and individuals’ capacities, expanding teams with additional editors where needed. A supportive relationship with the Elsevier publishing contact involved is key, and we are also reviewing how journals can best accommodate life events, such as absences while editors are undertaking parenting responsibilities in the home, while still ensuring the smooth running of journals for authors and readers.

We must also broaden our efforts to target additional steps earlier in the research and researcher lifecycle to advance women’s progress

All well and good, but we need to better prepare women to taken on these roles in the first place: authors are future reviewers; reviewers are future Board members; Board members are future editors. Journals — and the editors who lead them — play an extremely influential role in enabling and empowering all researchers to progress through their academic careers. With this in mind, we have equipped Elsevier editors with guidance and practical advice to advance inclusion and diversity throughout the journal publication cycle. Similarly, we educate editors and reviewers alike about unconscious bias, which otherwise risks women unjustly falling at the first hurdle in their academic career (as authors).

We are also mindful of other aspects of the research publication process with potential risks of exclusion, or opportunities for inclusion. An obvious example concerns submission system tools editors may use that draw on historical data. These may overweigh the importance of more senior researchers, and those with the greatest opportunities to participate in the research-publication cycle. We emphasize this to users, while also taking steps to ensure that our tools are inclusive and fair.

Of course, networking and collaboration are key to most thriving research careers, with conference attendance a key element. We have therefore worked to ensure our conference programme is inclusive. In collaboration with our conference chairs, we have grown the representation of invited speakers self-identifying as women from 15% in 2015 to 38% today. And as we’ve already stressed, this visibility is key, showing not only those individuals, but also the broader delegation, that women’s research and voices are of equal importance. Again, women’s caregiver roles create an obvious barrier to conference participation, although a positive legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic — the move towards embracing online and hybrid meetings — will undoubtedly benefit those whose travel is restricted for any reason, including caregiving.

We need to think bigger, broader, and bolder...

Our Gender Equity Taskforce and Inclusion & Diversity Advisory Board continue to drive initiatives that lead to positive change in gender and other intersectionalities in academic research, within and beyond Elsevier. This includes embedding gender in research practice, and we are currently finalizing Sex and Gender Equity in Research (SAGER) guidelinesopens in new tab/window for use across Elsevier’s journals, which recognize the importance of sex and gender within research itself, a dimension of analysis that has a critical impact on research quality and outcomes.

Addressing gender equity is of course a worthy first nut to crack, but there are yet further intersectionalities to target. The hurdles towards appropriate recognition and advancement are even harder for women of color, for women of different ages, for women from the Global South, and so on.

We need to work collaboratively to identify new challenges and develop solutions

We don’t have the answers. We aren’t even sure we’ve captured all the challenges! But we’re ready and willing to do all we can to find them together. So please tell us what you think. Are there any issues we’ve missed, and what ideas do you have in terms of innovating towards more inclusive cultures, practices, and processes? (Please comment below.)

Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in academic publishing is not without its challenges, but it is undoubtedly worthwhile. We can’t think of a better way of summing it up than to invoke the words of one of our interviewees (Anna Holthaus) once more: “Taking gender into account leads to better research results and understanding of our world — and isn’t that by definition the purpose of science?!”