I had a minor moral dilemna last week. Or perhaps it’s just a moment I’m not very proud of.
My most recent paper has been a real pain to get published. It’s exactly the sort of science that gets me excited, but where to publish has not been obvious, and the existence of previously published work which is just plain wrong doesn’t help. But this is nothing so strange, and my PhD student has been relentlessly positive and willing to learn from each revision how to strengthen the points that we are making. So so far, no problem at all.
Last week we had reached the 3rd submission of this paper, and neither of us had any inclination to change anything further. Yet I hesitated before emailing through the instruction to submit, and added:
“Oh, and change names to initials only – it is what I have previously gone with.”
I have always used my first initial, by preference — partly because I am lucky enough not to have an overly common last name, and partly because of precedent — I don’t recall ever thinking all that much about it. But a week or so before, something had crossed my radar, and this caused a certain self-consciousness. I come across discussion of women in science very frequently now, but so far, I haven’t had a lot to add to my previous posts. Then I saw a recent discussion of the Matilda Effect (in different places, but probably first via Athene Donald on twitter (see her take here).
I’m not sure how much attention I would have given it if I hadn’t been in the middle of dealing with referees comments on the previous submission of my paper, which may have impacted on the way I read the following paper.
In The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest, Knobloch-Westerwick and colleagues examine the effect of role congruity on our evaluations of others. In a stereotypically male field, are men’s achievements valued more highly? And are women equally advantaged in fields we consider feminine?
I won’t spell out the conclusions of the paper in any great depth. But in a task where 243 communication scholars were asked to evaluate the quality of a conference abstract, those abstracts apparently authored by men were rated more highly than those authored by women. The effect was stronger if the topic of the abstract was stereotypically ‘male’, rather than ‘female’ or gender-neutral. This all seems unsurprising, given everything else — as for the Moss-Racusin study, the men and women participating were demonstrably equally biased.
Probably the most surprising line in the paper was the follow-on from a summary of all the evidence demonstrating bias against women in science (or stereotypically male fields). Framed as an exception, the authors stated that in fact women would “likely benefit from a blind peer review process”. Leaving aside the fact that blind peer review is very uncommon (I can’t think of any examples in fact), this supposed advantage for women is actually just a statement about what might level the playing field.
So should I have instructed my student to change our names to initials only? I don’t know. Given that I have always used initials, I don’t see why not. But I do know that now, I feel weirdly guilty about it. Am I obliged to always be visibly a woman? I can see how this is something that I could learn to resent…