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Just your initials, please! Subverting sexist biases in peer-review

Last week I posted a column about the rather embarrassing fuss some people made when they discovered the phenomenally successful Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” is created and curated by a woman, Elise Andrew.

This fired a couple of interesting discussions, here on The Conversation and on Twitter. One of the tweets I received about this came from Sydney University astronomer, science luminary and best-selling author of Extreme Cosmos, Professor Bryan Gaensler:

Professor Bryan Gaensler tweeted “I publish as "B.M. Gaensler” because my gender isn’t relevant. Don’t like pic of author in my head when I read their paper. Twitter

This struck me as a modest but principled thing male authors could do to make gender less a part of the peer-review process. But I also thought it might be a trivially small thing to do. I doubt anyone in the astrophysics world has wonders who the mystery “B.M Gaensler” is when they review his papers.

But a piece of Correspondence in yesterday’s issue of Nature has me re-evaluating. Tina M Iverson, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, was responding to Nature’s recent special issue on the gender gap in science.

While analyses of gender-gaps and sexism tend to focus on large samples or on stories about the experience of individuals, Iverson reports on a small experiment she did. Extending a proud tradition that stretches from Benjamin Franklin to Barry Marshall, she used herself as the subject.

In my first year as a researcher in 2005, I submitted 16 grant applications under my full name, which is not gender neutral. Just one received funding.

The next year, applying using only her initials and last name, her success rate went up fivefold.

This was only an n = 1 experiment, but I didn’t care to repeat it.

But inadvertenly repeat it she did. Her university’s electronic application system, without her knowledge, entered her first name. And her success rate plummetted to match that in the first year. Last, after persuading her institution to use only her first initials and last name, her success rate returned to the levels of year 3. As she puts it:

I am the same applicant. The replicates are low, but the outcome apparently differed only when it was obvious to the reviewers that I was female.

What’s in a name?

It seems to me that there might be more value to Professor Gaensler’s strategy than I first thought. We’ve exchanged tweets about Iverson’s letter this morning, and a few people have chimed in – mostly despondent that bias can be as obvious and blatant as Iverson’s very limited experiment hints.

Our names shape the trajectories of our lives and careers more than we might know. In science, names near the start of the alphabet are cited more than those near the end (Darwin a better name then Wallace?), and unfamiliar or foreign names are more susceptible to misspelling in citations.

When I was lecturing in South Africa in the early 90s, students from all racial groups felt they were being discriminated against on the basis of racial judgements: arrived at when markers read a student’s name on the exam paper. The university solved this quite simply by sealing off the name on exam scripts.

While authors seldom learn the identity of the peers who review their papers, some journals recognise that referees knowing authors' names could express any number of biases. Several journals now have double-blind review. When I was on the board of Behavioral Ecology a few years ago, double-blind reviewing was viewed positively by a large majority of society members. And academics more generally view double-blind publishing as fairer.

Subverting bias

Some of the despondency in today’s Twitter conversation stems from the fact women’s contribution to research, and in workplaces more generally, suffers from low visibility. Using initials or otherwise, removing gender cues can only make this problem worse.

I completely agree. And yet I wonder whether the pursuit of fairness in general and gender equity in particular tends too often to focus on big across-the-board changes. While those who want fairer systems should not let up on the big-picture push for systemic revolution, individuals need to employ more guerrilla-like versatility.

There will always be a place for subverting and confounding bias. Women who want to fly under the gendered radar occasionally might want to use only their initials and remove other gendered cues. At other times they might choose to maximise their visibility as women.

And men, such as Professor Gaensler, can play their part in subverting (and maybe even eroding) bias by choosing to make their own gender a little less visible.

Which men will prove willing to eschew the apparent advantage of a masculine name remains an interesting question.

What will I do? I’ve long disliked the obsession with branding and the finger-wagging from various information administrators I know to publish using a consistent, easily-searchable version of my name. I didn’t use my middle initial until two years ago, and only do so sporadically now. But I think I’ll do my part and go initials-only for a while.


I know this is only the tip of a much bigger and more serious iceberg. But I’d like to hear from folks who might have other ideas to subvert or confuse biases. And if you don’t reckon biases are real, then what have you got to lose from subverting them? Comments here or on Twitter @Brooks_Rob #subvertbias

Join the conversation

43 Comments sorted by

  1. George Harley

    Retired Dogsbody

    Thanks Rob, interesting.
    As an occasional participant in online role playing games, it is common to discover real life males that have created a young, slim and attractive female avatar to trick younger male players into helping them.
    The newbies tend to surrender to a slender rendered gender bender pretender.
    Regards

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  2. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    A good reason for double-blinded peer-review!

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  3. Lisa Miller

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Interesting article Rob! I wonder if the increase in the use of gender-neutral names in the past few years would also have any impact on the bearer of those names? ie could women with names like Cameron and Charlie potentially get more opportunities on paper?

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  4. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    The use of initials seems to be a very sensible low cost strategy R but you're dead right that such judgements appear to be so deeply ingrained.

    Could of course be that Tina is a name for secretaries and receptionists, while an Isabella or Lavinia might have romped it in with an impossible load of grants. In other words, might not just be gender prejudice but also class.

    Names say so much about us to others - too much - and we don't even realise we're listening for it.

    Be interesting to ask Raewyn (nee Bob or R W) Connell how the strike rate on her grant applications has fared after swapping sides.

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  5. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    interesting that the example rb has used is from academia.

    further interesting in that it could be imagined that academia might be above the issue of gender/race bias, to a larger extent than the rest of the community. but obviously not, as rb also quoted south africa as an country where issues arise in these instances.

    in this forum, but in relation to another article, there has been much discussion on gender stereotyping of both males and females in advertising. the result of these discussions…

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  6. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Rob, a worthy cause.

    Incontravertable? evidence there in Tina Iverson's experiment: T.M. Iverson= a solid brickwall gravitas of authority, especially with the "son" ending? Tina Iverson, silly, flippant, nail-painting girly? Perhaps she could try on Constantina for a formal air of foreign mystery + dedication to cause...but sex still gets in the way, in the male brain anyway...feminine names = sex, bedroom, wives, mothers, etc, things other than hard science... brain-botherers, tempting…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Pat Moore

      hi pat

      hear you.....and who can deny what you say.

      but at least the world has moved on from the bad old days - and continues to do so.
      probably not fast enough for some tho.

      today we have a woman p.m./leader (no politics), so does brazil, germany liberia, argentina, bangladesh, iceland, lithuania, costa rica, trinidad & tobago, slovakia, kosovo, thailand, denmark, jamaica, malawi and south korea.

      there are woman in powerful positions around the world in both politics and business and science.

      the wheel is slowly turning.

      the best selling author these days is a woman.

      as johnny mercer wrote........ "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive",
      eliminate the negative >>>>>>>

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    2. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Interesting Pat. What are your thoughts of using the diminutive form of a name?

      Would I be treated differently if introduced as Judith/Jude or Judy? Absolutely.

      Is using the diminutive form of someone's name a form of put down, in some cases I believe so. (this has happened on this website in the case of my own name). I also think it is a way of infantalising a person, and I feel for people who are given the childish or diminutive form of a name, as adults I know several who have changed their names because they could not be taken seriously with the diminutive form being their actual name. One a "Cindy", another a "Jamie", and yet another "Stevie".

      I thought long and hard before naming my own daughter, I wanted her to have a name with no diminutive form, a strong name, and one that didn't lend itself to unfortunate rhyming in childhood. I wonder what other people think about when naming their children?

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    3. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen, I like that we are seeing many more gender neutral names today, and a tendency not to use diminutive forms.

      I have a male friend who constantly uses the diminutive form of my name, I really dislike this, and told him to please use either my full name, or if he can't manage two syllables, then simply Jude, would be fine. He continued, so I decided to turn the tables on him, and use a diminutive form of his own name, and tack a silly Y on to the end, just to add to make it sound even more childish.

      After several times introducing him this way to others, at work, and socially, (as he did me), he began to get the message, he hated it every bit as much as I hated this happening. We made a deal to stop, and to this day he never uses the diminutive form of my name.

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  7. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    This article might have been approved with some statistics - some real statistics - about actual success rates by gender adjusted for years of experience from major funding bodies such as NHMRC.

    I assume that sort of data is collected and the fact that it is not presented suggests the problem - if problem there is - is less pronounced than the anecdotal evidence coming out of Nashville suggests.

    Science is full of women successfully winning grants.

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    1. Rod Andrew

      Editor, teacher, engineer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      To Sean Lamb,

      'Science is full of women successfully winning grants.'

      Your comment might have been improved with some statistics - some real statistics - about actual success rates by gender adjusted for years of experience from major funding bodies such as NHMRC.

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    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Rod Andrew

      Mr Andrew,
      The statistics are readily available - at least as regarding NHMRC - because they publish them every year.
      If I was to summarize them (although I advise anyone interested to google them up themselves for the full picture) it would be like this:
      No gender gap visible for early career level grants, a modest gender gap of a few percentage points for project grants and a more substantial gender gap for program grants (but n is very small for this category). Since this is just raw data…

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    3. Sylvia Robinson

      Archaeologist

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Sean - So, you have evidence there is a gender gap, especially at higher levels, and your solution is people shouldn't talk about it. For some people, this is the eternal solution to injustices against women. Why didn't you just say you don't care and be done with it?

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    4. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sylvia Robinson

      Its not my evidence it is evidence that the NHMRC collects and places on their website every year.
      A small gender gap may be a result of the best grants being funded - see my point about confounding factors.
      Ironically if genders were concealed it might be far harder to ensure that success rates are roughly even.
      BTW, there were a couple of categories where women had slightly higher success rates - so you need to be careful before you say any gap represents a problem.

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    5. Sylvia Robinson

      Archaeologist

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Your confounding factors would seem not to apply in the case presented in the article.The woman cited was presenting identical grant applications under gendered and non-gendered names and getting very different results. Seniority as a factor is tricky. It's hard to get without research grants.

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    6. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sylvia Robinson

      Exactly - which is why I think the anecdotal evidence presented in this article is rubbish. At very least it should have been presented along side with real data.

      See my very first comment.

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  8. Tracy Heiss

    logged in via Facebook

    Let's take this step further. I resent that unless someone is a doctor, there is no escaping Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms. When filling out documents, why must my gender matter? I argued this point many years ago during a uni tutorial, to be pretty much laughed at. I suggested that perhaps we can create a whole new word, like Per (person) Smith...etc. It was howled down and I was nicknamed Commie thereafter.

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    1. George Harley

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Tracy Heiss

      Hi Tracy
      I use to answer the "Gender" question on many of the sillier forms with "Which one suits?" and the "Christian name" box with "Don't have one, not a Christian". I got called far worse than Commie :-)

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    2. Dania Ng

      Retired factory worker

      In reply to Tracy Heiss

      There are some situations where gender-specific terminology ought to be left out. Many of us have fought for this to happen. But it is so very unfortunate now to see the mindless de-gendering of society. I for one would hate it to be referred to as 'Per' or 'Smith'. Now that we have largely done away with titles like Mrs, soon we will consider identifiers such as father, mother, wife, husband, sister, brother, and so on as anachronistic. Parent A, B, W etc, and Partner A, B, Z, etc. (or maybe the now genderless 'bitch' might be more appropriate?) will become the norm and mandated identifiers. Enjoy living in such a world, Persons Brooks and Heiss.

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    3. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dania Ng

      Bitch is not, and has never been, genderless.

      Personally, I would love to live in a world without gender specific titles and names, we could all be human beings first and foremost, it might make prejudice and bigotry a little more difficult, but I don't see that as a bad thing at all.

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    4. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I agree, Ms Olney.

      For example, why do we need to know the sex of someone conducting a meeting? We need only use the term chairperson.

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    5. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Exactly Ms Art :)

      We don't need to know their sex, relationship status, whether they have children or not, where they live, where they were born, how old they are, how much money they earn, or many other pieces of information that people use to discriminate against others with.

      "Its all good fun until someone decides you are the enemy", this saying is one I learnt growing up, and it's one I remember, and see displayed almost everyday. Asylum seekers were people until someone, (conservative…

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    6. Dania Ng

      Retired factory worker

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I said 'the now genderless bitch' - as in "person Smith is my bitch" - could be interpreted as "Paul/Pauline Smith and I are married". For me, what makes us human is who we are, including our gender, our social attributes and what makes us into communal and civil beings. An extremist (read radical feminist) genderless world would be dehumanising, and would render meaningless so much of who we are and what inidvidualises us. I want to remain a mother, I don't want to simply be 'Parent A, B or Z' - and yes, I know perfectly well the semiotics for the word 'mother', but I also know what 'Parent A, B or Z' signifies. Besides, removing the gender identifiers will not do away with the real gender-based discrimination.

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    7. Dania Ng

      Retired factory worker

      In reply to Judith Olney

      "For example, why do we need to know the sex of someone conducting a meeting?"
      "We don't need to know their sex, relationship status, whether they have children or not, where they live, where they were born, how old they are, how much money they earn, or many other pieces of information that people use to discriminate against others with"
      I thought you said you want us all to be human first? Obviously you think that what you and Dianna quoted above is what dehumanises us. Personally, I don't live…

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    8. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dania Ng

      Even in the context you have used "bitch" in, it is still not genderless.
      If you think in any way "person Smith is my bitch", could be interpreted as married, there is something seriously amiss in your understanding of both the word "bitch" and the concept of marriage.

      You are still a mother, regardless of whether complete strangers know this information about you. The same with any other identifiers, you don't stop being female, simply because someone who has never met you, (people that meet…

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    9. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dania Ng

      I think you have misunderstood what I was talking about. I'm not talking about choosing to give information about yourself to others, we live in a world where that is easy, particularly if you are a use of social media. Cyborgs are part biological part mechanical beings, (I'm not suggesting we live in a world where we are not fully human, in fact I'm suggesting it would be better to live in a world where we are human first and foremost).

      Its hardly a myth that people don't want or need to know…

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    10. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Judith

      For a second there I thought you were going too far and would reveal the part of our plot to enforce the wearing of the full burka by both men and women and those voice masking devices to elude determination of sex by vocal sound.

      Seems like you stopped just in time.

      Isn't it odd though, despite wishing for a truly egalitarian society - neither of us has bothered to hide our own sex?

      You are female aren't you Judith? The written word tends to obscure sex unless someone actually CHOOSES to 'fess up.

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    11. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Hi Dianna, I actually do hide my sex when dealing with other websites, or some contract tenders. There are areas where I will not reveal my gender, because I have experienced discrimination and prejudice in the past.

      I don't do it here, one because I respect the website policy on using real names, and Judith is my name.

      In a truly egalitarian society, whether you are male or female would not determine your level of respect, or opportunity, but that's not what we live in, so I do the best with what I have to work with, and make changes where I can. :)

      Wayyy tooo hot for burkas here anyway.

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    12. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Totally understand, Judith. I value this site (particularly after my excoriating experiences on OLO) and my real name is Dianna. Besides, stating stuff like "when I had a miscarriage" tends to be a bit of a give away. Otherwise, in the interverse we could be anyone; male, female or flying spaghetti monsters.

      I actually thought Dania was a misogynistic male for a while...

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  9. Caroline Hoisington

    Economist Fellow

    This reminded me of my initial surprise when I started working in the Netherlands for a Dutch company and discovered that all work-related and professional documentation and our official signatures included initials and last names, not first names. It was standard for men & women both. ( I just discovered that's not the case for signing in to The Conversation but that's OK.) I do think it makes a major difference for professional acceptance - unfortunately, but then I'm just an air-head female. :)

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  10. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Wonderful to read so many thoughtful and interesting comments on this article.

    This name bias crosses racial boundaries as well, these days someone with the name Omar Mohamed will trigger knee jerk reactions, just as a Trevor compared to an Alistair will bring a presumption of class.

    I have taken to using to using initials only for postage - which is often difficult because many retailers insist on full names.

    As for my given name - I loath being called "Di" - understand your feelings entirely Judith. Have noted that people who considered themselves my superior, such as in the work place call me by this diminutive. Many Dianes, Dianas, Diannes and so on quite enjoy being called "Di" - making my objections even more difficult. However, it does serve a purpose of sifting those who are considerate from those who simply aren't.

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Its interesting isn't it Dianna, its been my observation that the diminutive form used for men, by other men, (outside of immediate family), is seen as a sign of friendship and familiarity, but not of disrespect. With women, being called by the diminutive form of their names, (by others outside of immediate family), is used as a sign of disrespect, (particularly if the woman objects to this).

      I've also observed the different tone of voice used, this is something others could easily observe for…

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    2. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      Thanks for your interesting reply.

      I have found that deliberate use of the diminutive is common among both sexes when dealing with those who have a superiority complex. In the world outside the internet I seem to get along with men better than women. However, when someone continues to use the diminutive after requests to use full or preferred name, at least one is informed of the nature of the person.

      Your point about the Mrs/Miss/Ms - very true. I just love to watch a person's expression when I insist on Ms (which is strangely almost an anachronism these days). However, I am divorced, have had a couple of long term relationships and do not see how either 'Mrs' or 'Miss' applies to me at all. When I was married I did still insist on 'Ms'; like you my marital status is nobodies' business.

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    3. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Dianna, I was even called a Greenie, Socialist lefty because I insisted on being addressed as Ms at a work do. lol, I took it as a compliment rather than an insult. Its interesting how caring about the environment and social equality is now seen as somehow bad. And amusing that breaking the convention of stating your marital status is now seen as a lefty greeny thing.

      It reminds me of Dale's constant put downs of women who study in any arts or humanities fields, like this is somehow a bad thing. Made even more hilarious when he quotes data from research done by women in these very fields of study to try and back up his statements.

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    4. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I agree about being labelled,when merely asking to be referred to in an equal honorific as has been accorded to Mr Men, since this form of etiquette began.

      Re: Craig/Fred you may be 100% correct. But you did not hear that from me. If you are ever completely bored out of your brain and in need of gouging out your eyeballs, you can always check out "Antiseptic"'s comments on Online Opinion.

      Cheers

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Judith Olney

      I am pleased to know that you life is far more vibrant than those who shall not be named or even initialled. Helps to know which dots to join though - not that you heard it from me.

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  11. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Hi Judith, Yes i guess there's a few effects re name shortening depending upon context? There can be a friendly informality and warmth about dropping formal endings for a y, welcomed perhaps as a sound of loving affection when used by family and friends but maybe not if used by others not so close that can feel like a presumption? And conversely if your mother suddenly calls you by your formal name and she doesn't normally, you know you've done something offensive? Australians are renown though…

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Pat Moore

      Thanks for your reply Pat, it does seem to be about context, and in many ways, the level of respect we show to another person. I always try to call people by 'their' preferred name, whether that is their full name, or any shortened version they prefer. It's just respect and common decency.

      As a woman I've learnt that the use of the diminutive form of my name, is often used to show disrespect, (again context matters). Even when I have asked specifically to be addressed by my correct name, there…

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