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Some of the top political science journals are biased against women. Here’s the evidence.

- May 30, 2017

In 2013, the Monkey Cage published a symposium of pieces that examined gender biases in political science — in professional networks, in teaching evaluations, in scholarly recognition and in citations of published work. But one of the most important measures of professional academic success was not covered in the symposium: the number of articles one publishes in peer-reviewed journals.

To advance the discussion, we asked: Is there gender bias in journal publications, particularly in top political science journals that are so important for tenure and promotion?

We looked at 10 top journals — and yes, some show gender bias.

For our study in PS, we collected information on all articles published by 10 top journals over the past 15 years. The data shows that they publish a lower proportion of articles written by women than there are women in the discipline as a whole.

Women make up 31 percent of the membership of the American Political Science Association and 40 percent of newly minted doctorates. Within the 20 largest political science PhD programs in the United States, women make up 39 percent of assistant professors and 27 percent of tenure track faculty.

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Let’s compare these baseline figures with the publication rates our study documents. Women make up just 18 percent of authors in the American Journal of Political Science and 23 percent in the American Political Science Review. That’s dramatically off. In fact, only two of the 10 top journals we studied published a proportional number of women: Political Theory and Perspectives on Politics each have women writing about 34 percent of all articles.

Why is there gender bias in political science publishing?

What accounts for this disparity? We explore two possible explanations.

The first has to do with how scholars collaborate. Increasingly, articles have many authors — but the trend toward co-authorship has not been as welcoming to women as it has been to men.

The most common byline across all the journals we surveyed remains a single male author (41.1 percent); the second most common form of publication is an all-male “team” of more than one author (24 percent). Cross-gender collaborations account for only 15.4 percent of publications. Women working alone byline about 17.1 percent of publications, and all-female teams take a mere 2.4 percent of all journal articles.

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The second explanation has to do with research methods. Our study demonstrates that over the past 15 years, women account for a larger share of the published work that is qualitative (using case studies and relying on historical or contemporary documents, interview material, or other nonstatistical forms of evidence). But flagship journals are overwhelmingly publishing studies that rely on statistical evidence.

Here’s the general pattern we observed: The journals that publish a larger share of qualitative work also publish a larger share of female authors. Conversely, the more a journal focuses on statistical work, the lower its share of female authors.

Are women just not submitting to the top journals?

Relying as we do on data on published articles, we are not fully able to pinpoint the cause or causes of women’s underrepresentation in the more statistically oriented journals. We have evidence that flagship journals such as the American Political Science Review just don’t get that many non-statistical submissions. If women aren’t submitting to these journals, then editors may reasonably respond: “We cannot accept what we don’t get to review.”

But if women are not submitting to certain journals in numbers that represent the profession, this is the beginning and not the end of the story. Why not?

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Political scientists have helped forge crucial insights into the “second” and “third faces” of power — ideas that help explain that the effects of power can be largely invisible.

The second face of power refers to a conscious decision not to contest an outcome in light of limited prospects for success, as when congressional seats go uncontested in districts that are solidly red or blue.

The third face of power is more subtle and refers to the internalization of biases that operate at a subconscious level, as when many people assume, without thinking, that wives — and not husbands — will adjust their careers and even their expectations to accommodate family and spouse.

Let’s apply those insights to the findings from our study. If women aren’t submitting in proportional numbers to prestigious journals, that may result from conscious decisions based on the second face of power: They don’t expect their work to be accepted because they don’t see their type of scholarship being published by those journals. Or they may refrain from submitting because of a more internalized, third-face logic, taking it for granted that scholars like “me” don’t submit to journals like that.

Either way, publication patterns are self-enforcing over time, as authors come to see it as a waste of time to submit to venues whose past publications do not include the kind of work they do or work by scholars like them.

Moving forward

Our analysis of publication patterns in political science suggests several areas that deserve further study and scrutiny.

First, given how important publications are for getting an entry-level faculty position, the trend in co-authorship deserves more attention. Senior faculty members, and particularly those who direct large research projects, would do well to assess their collaborative networks and ask whether they are truly inclusive. Might they unknowingly harbor implicit biases or assumptions that only certain kinds of people would make congenial collaborators?

Second, the journals themselves — and especially their editors — have an important task ahead. Journal editors are crucial providers of collective goods for the discipline, devoting their time and energy to facilitating and promoting the work of others. But they are also powerful gatekeepers. Their decisions can make or break academic careers by determining whose work sets the discipline’s agenda and whose work will never see the light of day.  Breaking the self-perpetuating cycle at some journals may require more active outreach to solicit a diverse and representative pool of submissions.

One thing is clear: Publishing in top journals is increasingly important to tenure and promotion in political science. So if we want to cultivate diversity in the profession, it is important for our top journals to represent the diversity of practicing political scientists.

Dawn Langan Teele is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Field Experiments and Their Critics” (Yale University Press, 2014).

Kathleen Thelen is the Ford professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.