Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Gender Bias Extends to Peer Review

By Guy Nolch

Gender bias in science is found not only in pay and seniority but also in the peer review process.

Science is a tough career, beginning with the long road to completing a PhD and continuing with issues of short-term funding cycles with low chances of success, and the reality that a particular area of expertise may limit career progression opportunities to a few institutions scattered across the globe – not exactly family-friendly stuff. It’s little wonder, then, that a survey of professional scientists last year (AS, Jan/Feb 2017, p.41) uncovered concerns about fatigue, remuneration and the impacts of cost-cutting on scientific capability.

Gender equality remains a concern in a sector popularly imagined as the domain of bearded old men in white coats. When a research career is largely measured by scientific papers published, the pause that many female scientists face when commencing a family puts them at a professional disadvantage. Two reports have put this into perspective, one revealing large pay and seniority discrepancies in science and the other a gender bias in the peer review process.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency – a statutory agency of the Australian government created by the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 – has captured data from 12,000 reporting organisations employing more than four million Australians – 40% of the workforce. An analysis of the 2015–16 data by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre (http://tinyurl.com/lsfl8sm) found that a gender imbalance in leadership is reflected in large gender pay gaps across 19 sectors. While the gender pay gap was lower in organisations with a balanced representation of women in senior leadership roles, it surprisingly doubled when female leadership exceeded 80%.

Within the “professional, scientific and technical services” sector, the report found that 27% of key management and senior executives were women – seventh highest among the 19 sectors. However, the gender pay gap for the sector was a startling 27.5%, or $37,245 on average – the fourth highest among sectors. Part-timers were paid 6.8% less than men (ninth) and casuals 32.5% less (second), while graduates were approximately on parity.

Separately, eLife published an analysis of 9000 editors and 43,000 reviewers from the Frontiers series of journals, which generally disclose the identities of peer reviewers and editors of articles. The analysis of more than 40,000 articles published in the past 10 years (http://tinyurl.com/mwef6sq) found not only “that women are underrepresented in the peer-review process” – even after accounting for their underrepresentation in science generally – but also “that editors of both genders operate with substantial same-gender preference (homophily)” when selecting reviewers.

However, the study “observed very different patterns of homophily for male and female editors”, with gender bias widespread among male reviewers but “dominated by very few highly homophilic editors for women. After removal of their contribution, homophily became insignificant.”

What this means, the authors conclude, is that gender bias in peer review is likely to continue even if female involvement in the process reaches parity.


Guy Nolch is the Editor and Publisher of Australasian Science.