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Women are underrepresented in the pages of scholarly journals. As much as publishers don’t want to admit it, studies show gender bias almost certainly plays a role. That does not mean publishers intentionally or even consciously favor articles written by male researchers. But could unconscious bias be a factor in the selection of articles for publication? Here’s a look at why gender bias exists, why it matters, and what researchers and publishers can do to reduce its presence in today’s scholarly journal environment.

Where it exists

Although it’s improving, the cultural stereotype of women as caregivers and as less competent in leadership roles persists. Such bias can cause publishers and scholars to undervalue women’s contributions to research. One study shows that, although they are more likely to conduct experiments, women are less likely to be given the prestigious first author position on published journal articles. Studies also show editors are less likely to select women researchers to write commissioned articles.

Gender bias also exists within the peer review process. In fact, an Ohio University study showed peer reviewers associated papers from male authors with greater quality.

Why it matters

Scholarly publishing is not the only area where women are underrepresented. A gender gap also exists in higher education STEM faculty, and journal publishers could play a role there as well. The ever-present adage “publish or perish” is real: Researchers who are published in high-impact scholarly journals receive the most prestigious faculty positions, quicker tenures, and more grant money. Gender bias in academic publishing could, therefore, be a factor in the lack of women in these prestigious positions.

Such exclusion means the academic world is missing out on some brilliant minds and provocative thought leaders as mentors for younger generations and role models for women pursuing careers in research. Fewer role models along with perceived challenges for women in scholarly publishing can dissuade girls and young women from entering the research field.

To combat this, women in academia are sharing their stories, their challenges, and how they are working to make the world better for women and girls wishing to follow in their footsteps. One of the issues some are contending with is balancing their careers with family life. Also, fellow researchers sometimes look upon women with families as being in support roles and don’t always expect them to rise above such positions. Therefore, women can become discouraged and accept their roles as support researchers.

What can publishers do?

To offer support to women researchers and help them rise above stereotypes, publishers need to first recognize problems exist. They need to collect data on gender roles in scholarly publishing. Just being aware that bias exists can go a long way in making progress to avoid it. Instituting the double-blind peer review process as a standard can also help reduce bias in that step of the publishing process. In addition, publishers should actively promote women in research.

Women can work to overcome challenges, advance themselves and fellow women researchers, and help stem the gender gap by representing women well in their fields of research. How? They can make sure no one can hold lack of competency as a reason for bias and be outspoken in changing the systems that allow gender bias to occur.

Once publishers are well-established in their professions, they have a lot of experience to offer young women to help them stay on course. Why not pay if forward by mentoring, helping women to believe in themselves and their futures? Become an active participant in networks that support women in research, and make sure your women colleagues as well as those you mentor know their contributions to academia matter.

Gender bias in scholarly publishing is an important issue, not just for women who have followed their passions into research or the girls who aspire to be like them, but also for society. Journal publishers have an obligation to ensure their journals are not enabling it.

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