Gender bias in academic conference ratings revealed

Women's submissions to a leading seminar were viewed more warmly once a gender-blind process was introduced

September 1, 2016
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Women are more likely to be accepted to speak at academic conferences if applications are anonymised to remove any mention of their gender, a study suggests.

In the latest piece of evidence to support the “Matilda effect” – where women in male-dominated fields are rated more harshly by peer reviewers – a review of a leading international conference found that papers with a female first author were viewed more positively once clues to the applicant’s gender were removed.

Conversely, those papers with a male first author scored far worse once a “double-blind” review process was introduced to conceal the identities of the authors and their referees.

The analysis followed the decision by the biennial Evolution of Languages (EvoLang) conference to move to a double-blind system for this year’s event, which was held in New Orleans, Louisiana, in March.

Papers submitted with a female first author were ranked higher by about 4 per cent in 2016 compared with those entered for the previous two conferences, according to a study, titled "Double-blind reviewing at EvoLang11 reveals gender bias", published in the Journal of Language Evolution last month.

Meanwhile, rankings for papers with male first authors declined by about 19 per cent on average, with the altered scores likely to increase female participation in the conference, the paper adds.

“These findings have been made in many other fields, so we are not uncovering something new, but the effect is quite noticeable if you look at the different years in question,” said Sean G. Roberts, from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, based in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who wrote the paper with Tessa Verhoef, from the University of California, San Diego’s Centre for Research in Language.

The study was also important because it revealed gender bias in this particular field, even though a male-to-female speaker ratio (roughly 50:50 in 2012 and 2014) did not suggest an immediate problem, Dr Roberts explained.

“We’ve shown that sometimes a bias is there even when raw numbers show equality,” he added.

“Young people also do better under double-blind reviewing as they can be recognised for the quality of their work, rather than winning credit just for their name and reputation,” Dr Roberts said.

He explained that the study of language evolution had traditionally been dominated by male academics, with only nine out of 77 invited plenary speakers at EvoLang being women prior to the 2016 conference.

This year, five of the nine invited plenary speakers were women, who were well represented among session presenters and delegates, added Dr Roberts.

However, he said that gender bias would not be erased by double-blind reviewing alone, admitting that he and fellow conference organisers had to reassess their own attitudes when putting together the New Orleans programme.

“There is a perception of a shortage of women [operating in this field], so when we were putting together the list of potential speakers, we worried whether we would have enough female speakers,” he said.

“In fact, there were many, many female academics doing very good work in this field, which shows it's important to be constantly mindful of these issues,” he added.

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