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Gender bias in professional networks and citations

- October 4, 2013

On the final day of the Monkey Cage gender gap symposium (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for earlier posts) we offer broader reflections from three distinguished scholars. Earlier Friday, Ashley Leeds wrote about the ways work by women is systematically devalued. Later today, you will hear from Beth Simmons.
It is my pleasure to introduce David Lake, the Jerri-Ann and Gary E. Jacobs Professor of Social Sciences, Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Associate Dean of Social Sciences, and Director of the Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at the University of California, San Diego. David has published nearly 100 scholarly articles and chapters, three books, and 10 edited volumes on international relations theory and international political economy. He was a co-editor of the journal International Organization, the president of the International Studies Association, and was elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

David Lake

David Lake

The gender gap in citations in international relations identified by Daniel Maliniak, Ryan M. Powers, and Barbara F. Walter is real and, frankly, puzzling on at least two levels. Let me try to illustrate the problem, and speculate on the cause, mostly via anecdote and with a few references to the available literature on academic networking. This is hardly a scientific response but will, I hope, engage the issues raised by this important article and, perhaps, stimulate further debate.
I know the citations gap is real from personal experience. I was recently called out by a reviewer for a submission of mine to a major international journal. Quite correctly and appropriately, the reviewer pointed out that of the first authors in my extensive reference list, only about 10 percent were women. In revisions, I consciously tried to increase this percentage – and here is the first level of the puzzle – it was hard. Frankly, it took effort and required me to reach beyond the works I would normally cite. I am still not sure why  this exercise was quite so difficult, but it was not simply a matter of replacing article A by a man with article B by a woman. Citations are not easily substitutable. I had to broaden the literatures cited in the article to have a significant effect. Expanding the range of citations made the paper significantly better, engaged more communities, and strengthened the argument, but in the end I still did not cite women in proportion to their numbers in the discipline. Dan Nexon apparently had the same problem in his self-experiment in citations, but that is small comfort. Reflecting on this one instance, I now realize that I have likely been guilty of citation bias for many years in many publications. I am not proud of this fact. Prior to reading Maliniak et al., however, it had never dawned on me to check the gender-distribution of my citations. One benefit of the paper will be to make us all more sensitive to gender balance – but I doubt the problem will be entirely self-correcting.
Maliniak et al.’s article is puzzling at a deeper level, however, for they do not explain the citation gap, only document its existence and dismiss some obvious hypotheses. My first reaction to reading their paper was that the bias might be driven by a few “canonical” cites that we use routinely to denote entire literatures — like Waltz 1979 or Keohane 1984, references that need no additional commentary to the professionally initiated. But Maliniak at al. demonstrate that the result still holds when “outliers” (or works that are very highly cited) are removed.
Another possible explanation is the content of graduate syllabi. What we read in graduate school is what we cite later in our own published research. There is likely something to this explanation, as even a cursory review of syllabi at different institutions will suggest. But it does not appear to account for why men are more likely to cite other men. Although there may be some self-selection into different graduate programs, presumably men and women are reading much of the same material in their core courses. The most depressing possible explanation is that scholars systematically devalue the work of female scholars, as discussed by Ashley Leeds in her post. Although we do not have evidence on this tendency from international relations, experiments in cognate disciplines suggest this alternative cannot be dismissed.
Another possibility that I think may be important is that gendered personal networks in the political science profession lead to or at least reinforce gendered citation patterns. It is difficult to read everything these days; the number of articles and books being published is far beyond the ability of anyone to digest — or at least beyond my limited ability to do so. Speaking only for myself here, but in ways to which others may relate, I tend to read things from people I know or at least from scholars to whom I have been personally introduced. Unless it is exactly on the topic on which I am currently working, papers from scholars I have never met – however eminent they may be – often don’t get read. For a book or article to get onto one of my reference lists, I’ve usually had to absorb the work in some deep way – and this takes time. Personal connections lead to deeper readings, which lead to more citations and, likely, more personal connections.
In turn, academic networks are highly gendered, also for reasons that are somewhat difficult to explain. At the 2013 American Political Science Association meetings, for instance, I was on three panels: one, organized by a white male, was composed exclusively of white males; a second, put together by the white male section organizer, was also composed entirely of white males; and the third was organized by a woman and was approximately equal in its gender composition– a point I noted in my remarks at the panel. The net result of these three panels was that the papers I read and discussed at the conference — and would normally tend to cite in future papers of my own — were disproportionately by white males.
Having recently blogged elsewhere about conference networking and gender differences in this practice, I reached out to several younger female scholars prior to the conference and was, in turn, contacted by several other younger female researchers, so my conference interactions were not nearly as gender-segregated as my panel participations might otherwise suggest. But the panels on which I participated do highlight a larger problem. Gendered professional networks produce gender-segregated panels, which in turn reinforce gendered networks.
Cross-gender interactions at professional meetings, which then produce networks of scholars communicating outside these meetings, are admittedly sometimes tense. All professional networking is difficult, of course. On average, academics have terrible social skills. But let’s be honest, sex and status can make professional relationships more difficult. Women and men, young and mature, interact in a wide variety of social settings, many of which are unequal in their perceived power and status relations.
As research shows, norms sustained in this wider variety of relations can sometimes “leak” into professional relationships. Unfortunately, senior male scholars contacting younger female scholars, or younger female scholars approaching older male scholars, carry cultural baggage that same sex professional relationships do not. Males mentoring women can be perceived as “fathering” or, worse, patronizing their younger colleagues. Women reaching out to men can be equally misperceived by the individuals involved. Evidence suggests that women want to establish mentoring relationships more than men, but are constrained by fears that their advances may be interpreted as sexual. I do not mean to imply that all cross-gender interactions necessarily risk misperception, or that sexual tension pervades professional contacts, but our cultural baggage can, at the margin, inhibit men and women from establishing meaningful professional relationships.
Perhaps even more insidiously, men and women may fear opening contact from concern that others will inappropriately impose cultural and social stereotypes on their relationships — even if they are entirely professional. The job placement blogs were, until this line of discussion was shut down by the moderators, full of innuendo that female job candidates were getting more interviews for reasons completely unrelated to the quality of their work. Cloaked in anonymity, such misogynist remarks reflect attitudes still held by at least some of members of the profession. In discussing cross-gender networking with several female colleagues, nearly everyone has reported being the subject of malicious gossip about their professional relations at one time or another. Concerned that relationships may be misinterpreted by the small-minded among us, men and especially women are once again inhibited from establishing otherwise beneficial professional relationships.
For both reasons internal to the participants and fears generated by the reactions of others, professional interactions at conferences are again, at least at the margin, biased toward same-sex engagements that then mature into professional networks that are same-sex dominated. Even if the probability of forming professional relationships is biased only slightly toward male-male or female-female pairings, the cumulative effect will produce segregated professional networks. Much like Thomas Schelling’s original housing segregation models, this homophily does not require or imply any active prejudice or hostility, just a slightly higher probability of two men or two women establishing a professional relationship than a man and a woman — replicated many times over.
If gender-biased networks then influence what we read and what we cite, as suggested above, they will create or at least reinforce gendered citation patterns. There may, of course, be many determinants of the citation bias demonstrated by Maliniak et al., but professional networking is likely to be a significant contributing factor and – and I emphasize the conditional here – could be a sufficient explanation.
Women still confront many professional hurdles created by broader social norms. As someone who has trained many female graduate students, many of whom have gone on to successful careers and with whom I maintain long-standing professional relationships, I know how hard it can be to navigate treacherous waters or, to mix metaphors, to strike the right note of compassion and authority. Unfortunately, these hurdles isolate women within gender-segregated networks and likely produce fewer readers and fewer citations of their research — for reasons entirely independent of quality.
Some readers may have already concluded that I am perhaps blind to the extent of sexism in academia. I recognize that some colleagues are, to put it bluntly, pigs — and others may even seek out mentoring relationships with nefarious intent. I also acknowledge, regrettably, that even colleagues who themselves would never act inappropriately nonetheless feel free to cast aspersions about the motivations or actions of others. All poison the well of cross-gender professional relationships. There is little to be done about such individuals other than publicly and repeatedly scorn their attitudes and behavior. My eyes are open. But I prefer to focus here on structural reasons that work against beneficial cross-gender professional networks even among colleagues of good spirit and intent.
So, “what is to be done?” Social norms have power only to the extent they are respected and reproduced through practice. To change social norms, they need to be transgressed, de-normalized, and actively challenged. Women need to “lean in” as Sheryl Sandberg has urged, but not necessarily by taking on more professional obligations or responsibilities – for which they are already disproportionately burdened. Rather, they need to reach out to male colleagues, expect to be treated as equals, and ignore the gossip of those who may imply that professional networking across genders is somehow inappropriate.
In turn, when women feel they are not being treated professionally, they need to speak up – and we, as a profession, need to create safe spaces in which these conversations can occur. In discussing gendered interactions with female colleagues, nearly every exchange has led to a trickle and sometimes a small flood of examples of unequal treatment and often gross sexism. Write it off to my naiveté, again, but I have been surprised at the extent of the problem in academia. Women do put themselves at risk professionally in calling attention to the mistreatment to which they are subjected—and unfortunately this is likely to remain a real issue. But bottling mistreatment up and, perhaps, sharing it with only close friends hides the extent of the problem we collectively face. Some men may dislike having their behavior and attitudes examined, and some women may wish that gender issues might be less prominent than they are at the moment, but there is safety in numbers here. Seizing the opportunity provided by the Maliniak et al. paper and flushing sexism into the open for everyone reveals the problem more fully and protects individual women who may come forward with their experiences.
Men, in turn, need to lean in as well, and take the initiative in reaching out to female colleagues on the same terms and in the same way they would male colleagues. Indeed, given current imbalances in professional networks, men should make special efforts to reach out to their female colleagues. Prominent senior scholars who are often perceived as gatekeepers in the discipline have a particular obligation to reach out to women and, conversely, to make clear that lingering misogynist attitudes will not be tolerated. Maybe someday we can develop non-gendered professional networks that lead to citations that depend, as always, on who you know, but that do not reproduce gender bias in citations.