Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Are You Reading Enough Academic Women?

Full 05012014 bookmark

Image: bookmarks by Joanna Walsh (@ReadWomen2014).

In January, writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh created a collection of bookmarks, each of them featuring one of her favorite female novelists or nonfiction writers, and she mailed them out to friends. The bookmarks encouraged people to make 2014 “The Year of Reading Women.”

Women read more than men, yet male authors still dominate literary journals. In an annual count, VIDA draws attention to gender inequality in publishing with pie charts demonstrating how major literary magazines are often dominated by male bylines, reviewers, and authors reviewed. (The charts do show, encouragingly, that some magazines are improving from year to year.)

Plenty of sharp thinkers see this as a problem worth fixing. Some writers and editors, like Jonathan Gibbs and Matthew Jakuboski, have taken up the challenge to change their reading habits by committing to read only women for a set period of time.

And then there’s Walsh. After her project drew attention online, she created the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 (now she’s got her own account: @ReadWomen2014) and began tweeting the names of more than 250 authors who had appeared on the back of her bookmarks. The hashtag quickly became popular, not only as a way to catalog women writers and their achievements, but also as a rallying cry. Walsh suggested doing a “VIDA count on your own bookshelf” to see if there are imbalances. “While female writers may encounter similar obstacles,” she said, “their work is as diverse as men’s: There is a book by a woman for every kind of reader.”

Not surprisingly, I first encountered #readwomen2014 on Twitter. And I must admit: I’m quite taken with the challenge to read only female authors for the full year. (I loved Anil Dash’s similar concept of retweeting only women for a year, too.) But I quickly realized where the real challenge would lie. My fiction reading includes a majority of women writers in a variety of genres, but what about the books and articles that dominate my work life? It occurred to me that my scholarly reading might actually put me on the wrong side of a VIDA count.

There are several reasons for that. My Ph.D. is in religious studies, which still produces more male Ph.D.’s than female. Two of my main areas of research, white supremacists and monsters, include an overwhelming number of male scholars; I’ve actually had reviewers assume I’m a man just because I write on those topics. My interests in gender in both religion and higher education don’t quite balance my bookshelves.

So Walsh’s campaign prompted me to think about gender inequalities that arise in scholarly publishing and citations. How does gender affect who does what kinds of scholarship? Is there a gender gap in academic publishing? What would a VIDA count of scholarship show us? Luckily, some recent studies and news reports have explored the impact of gender on publishing.

While gender bias in academia is widely discussed, it is not always easily documented. That’s why B.F. Walter, Daniel Maliniak, and Ryan Powers collected data to demonstrate how it plays out in a key metric of academic life: citations. Their study focused on 12 leading journals in international relations, examining 3,000 articles published between 1980 and 2006. The researchers analyzed “citation counts” because, Walter notes, “they are increasingly used as a key measure of a scholar’s performance and impact”—the currency of influence and prestige, as well as factors in hiring and promotion.

After controlling for factors including venue, methodology, subject, the author’s institution, and the significance of the publication, Walter and her colleagues discovered that gender mattered even when all other factors were held constant. In fact, gender was one of the best predictors of whether an article would be cited or not. Walter writes that women authors received “0.7 cites for every 1 cite that a male author would receive.” Untenured women were the least likely to be cited.

While that study was limited to one field, its findings were similar to those of another one conducted by the Bergstrom Lab at the University of Washington. The lab’s Eigenfactor project seeks to map the currents of scientific knowledge in publishing by using JSTOR articles to create a large network of citations. Its gender study was the result of Jennifer Jacquet’s suggestion to see what would happen if the team analyzed the JSTOR data through the filter of gender.

What followed was the largest analysis we have of academic articles by gender. The study examined 1.8 million scholarly articles, from 1665 (!) to 2011. It found that women accounted for just 21.9 percent of authorships and 17 percent of single-authored papers. Those rates jump to 27.2 percent and 26 percent—slightly more respectable numbers, but still nothing to write home about—if you shorten the time frame to 1990 through 2012. Oh, and if an article had multiple authors, less than 20 percent of those listed first were women. (To see the breakdown of various disciplines, click here.)

Overall, the results of Eigenfactor’s gender project demonstrated that the percentage of female authors is less than the proportion of women in the full-time ranks of the academy. The study shows that women are making small gains in academic publishing, but the results are far from heartening.

In some ways, comparing female authors to women in the full-time ranks makes sense. But I wonder if that obscures more than it reveals about women and scholarly publishing. If we take into account that women are more likely to be in contingent jobs than full-time positions, doesn’t that make these percentages even more dire than suggested? What happens if we include researchers off the tenure track in the counts, too? I imagine the gender gap in academic publishing would appear worse than it already is.

So what can we do to shrink it? The researchers themselves have a couple of smart ideas. Walter suggests that authors should use only their last names and first initials when they submit their work to journals, which would help eliminate implicit bias against female scholars. Additionally, she notes that female authors are less likely to cite our own work than that of male authors. Women, then, should starting citing ourselves.

Maliniak and Powers, meanwhile, encourage faculty to make a point to achieve a gender balance in both their bibliographies and syllabi. That way, they argue, professors can avoid passing the the gender gap onto our students. These suggestions bring thoughtful consideration to how we construct our bodies of knowledge and how we might work against forms of bias—unconscious or conscious—to embrace more perspectives and create more well-rounded scholarship.

I’ve got one more suggestion. Academics, here’s my modest plea. How about we mimic Walsh’s #readwomen2014 by reading more women academics for the rest of 2014? Set your own time frame and read only scholarship by women. Do a VIDA count of your bookshelves. How might including more work from female academics change your bibliographies and syllabi? If you have trouble finding research by women scholars, what might that tell you about your field?

What happens when we pay attention to gender and authorship in our fields of study? What might we learn? I hope you’ll join me in this challenge to read academic women. Maybe we can start to close the gender gap in citations and publishing, a few books or papers at a time.

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