Are you aware of gender bias in peer review?

Last month, Dina Balabanova, (Associate Professor in Health Systems Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); Section Editor for BMC Health Services Research) and Jamie Lundine (Research Fellow at LSHTM), hosted a workshop at LSHTM to discuss gender equality in peer review. The specific aim was to discuss ways to address women’s equal participation in the peer review process as authors, peer reviewers and editors in health journals. The workshop was attended by a diverse group of people with a range of backgrounds and experience including PhD students, researchers, editors, publishers and funders.

Dina set the scene by referring to one of the main messages from the Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research that we can “learn lessons both from poor and rich nations to address the inequities that exist in all communities”. This was with respect to building strong health systems which protect the poor and promote equity. The message struck a chord for Dina, not only in terms of her own experience in health systems and policy research, but also in terms of parallel issues with respect to gender in peer review.

Gender bias in journals

Many of the editors she [Jamie Lundine] spoke with appeared unaware of any gender bias and felt that their editorial boards were gender balanced (when in fact they were not!)

Gender bias is a potential issue for journals across a range of different fields, not just health journals. A recent study of gender bias by Markus Helmer and colleagues on the Frontiers family of journals (which disclose the names of the handling editor and reviewers on published articles) found that while for some journals the proportion of women as authors could be as high as 48%, on average only 38% of peer reviewers are women and only 28% of editors are women. Of course, the final proportion of women who were named as peer reviewers may not have been representative of the proportion of women initially invited to peer review, but it seems that women are underrepresented in the peer review process, especially at editor level.

Jamie explained some fascinating insights she had obtained by interviewing a range of editors for their thoughts on gender. Many of the editors she spoke with appeared unaware of any gender bias and felt that their editorial boards were gender balanced (when in fact they were not!). So how widespread is the problem? And how can we fix it?

From an individual journal’s perspective, sadly we are mostly in the dark, as the majority of journals do not collect data on sex, let alone gender. But given the evidence so far that change is needed, how can journals help promote women’s equal participation in peer review – as authors, reviewers and editors?

An intense sharing of ideas followed, facilitated by group discussion and consensus-building to see if we could agree which activities could have most impact, and which could be most feasible. But a first step could be for journals to actually collect some gender statistics for authors, peer reviewers and editors. It’s also heartening to see that something as simple as suggesting to authors that they can help the journal improve the diversity of its reviewer pool by including women (as well as young scientists, and members of other under-represented groups) as their “suggested reviewers” can have a positive effect.

We shall be taking back these, and other, ideas to Springer Nature for further discussion with colleagues. Thank you Dina and Jamie, and the facilitators Eleanor Hutchinson and Keti Glonti for a truly thought-provoking day. We look forward to seeing what we can collectively do to make a difference.

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