Inexcusable sexism calls for action

May 7, 2015

The sexist nature of the peer review comments (suggesting that a paper written by two female researchers ought to include at least one male author to make sure that the data are interpreted correctly and saying that only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) that were offered in response to Fiona Ingleby and Megan Head’s Plos One journal submission on gender inequality in the life sciences has been met with a roar of public outrage (“‘Sexist’ peer review causes storm online”, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 30 April).

As a female academic, I personally found some of the sexist comments (such as only men have the personality necessary to make it to the top jobs in science) so outlandish that it was difficult to take them seriously. Surely no credible scientist could honestly believe that it is physical stamina that explains men’s publication advantage? That the journal editor(s) accepted such a review without challenge was equally galling.

If these comments were indeed meant to be taken literally, let me ask, rather provocatively: is this a case where the reviewing scientist is so patently sexist that s/he should be unmasked in this particular instance – as a public service to the scientific community? Anonymity plays a very specific function in the research process; when it undermines trust in the system of how work is judged, as demonstrated in this case, should it be withdrawn?

I do not ask this question lightly, but rather because we (myself included) often stand by and tolerate quiet sexism within the walls of academia. If this person is evidently biased, then why are we, as an academic community, protecting such clearly sexist behaviour? If key gatekeepers (such as peer reviewers at major journals) are permitted to express their damaging personal biases without any personal cost to their reputations, then it undermines the trust of female scientists in the fairness of the overall “meritocratic” system. This sense of fairness, by the way, has already been systematically undermined in more ways than a letter allows me to express.

Christine Cheng
Lecturer in war studies
King’s College London
Twitter @cheng_christine

 

What an appalling story. My sympathy goes out to the two women. This episode shows the journal in a very poor light. Why only one reviewer? Why did the editor not consider the reviewer’s contribution to be unacceptable and turn to another reviewer? I suggest that the editor should now take two swift actions: (1) remove the reviewer from the journal’s list of reviewers, and (2) resign immediately – he is not up to the job.

Telford Moore
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

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