Monday, December 17, 2012

Gender equality in science

An interesting post over at BishopBlog takes on the lack of men in Psychology. One of the reasons BishopBlog is a favorite of mine is that you get real data along with interpretations and opinions. Two points in the post strongly resonated with my experience. 

One is the decline of women in science by career stage. A few years ago, the NSF did a major study of women and minorities in science and identified attrition as a key reason for the under-representation of women in science. Following Dr. Bishop's example, a little complementary data (from 2010; these and lots more data are available here): in Neuroscience, the graduate student population was slightly biased toward women (52.7% are female), but the postdoctoral fellow population was biased toward men (only 45.7% were female). Given the fairly large sample sizes (2798 graduate students and 818 postdocs), this difference was highly reliable (chi-square test of independence, p < 0.001). 

The second is the effect of sub-field. I am particularly sensitive to this because I seem to work in two of the most gender-biased sub-fields: computational modeling seems strongly male-dominated, but cognitive neuropsychology seems strongly female-dominated. I couldn't find data for those fields exactly, but the APA membership data that Dr. Bishop mentioned show a huge disparity: women make up only about 25% of the members in Experimental Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, close to half in Clinical Neuropsychology, and about 70% in Developmental Psychology.

This issue is certainly complex and there is no simple solution. That said, there are some strategies that we know would help and can be implemented relatively easily. For example, we know that there is bias in the review process (e.g., Peters & Ceci, 1982), so why not make it double-blind? This is already the standard in some fields, but remains generally optional or unavailable in cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience. It is true that reviewers may be able to guess the identity of the author(s) some of the time, but isn't guessing correctly some of the time better than knowing all of the time? This would (partially) level the playing field between genders as well as between junior and senior scientists and should lead to a more fair system.

Peters, D. P., & Ceci, S. J. (1982). Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles, submitted again. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 187-255.

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