Journal editors are like science’s gatekeepers: they decide what gets published and what doesn’t, affecting the careers of other academics and influencing the direction that a field takes. You’d hope, then, that journals would do everything they can to establish a diverse editorial board, reflecting a variety of voices, experiences, and identities.
So a new study in Nature Neuroscience makes for disheartening reading. The team finds that the majority of editors in top psychology and neuroscience journals are male and based in the United States: a situation that may be amplifying existing gender inequalities in the field and influencing the kind of research gets published.
The researchers, led by Eleanor Palser from the University of California, San Francisco, looked at the top 50 journals in both psychology and neuroscience, noting the country of affiliation and gender of the editors at each journal. They classified each editor’s role according to three levels of seniority: editors-in-chief and their deputies; associate and section editors; and editorial and advisory board members.
For comparison, the team also estimated the overall proportion of male and female psychology and neuroscience researchers in the US, based on data from a national survey and conference registrations. They also looked at the geographical spread of senior authors who had recently published in the two fields.
Men accounted for 60% of the editors of psychology journals — significantly more than the 40% of editors who were women. There were more male than female editors at each level of seniority, and men made up the majority of editors in just over three-quarters of the journals. Crucially, the proportion of female editors was significantly lower than the overall proportion of psychology researchers who are women.
In terms of geographical spread, almost all psychology editors — 91% of them — were based in either North America or Europe. In fact, 61% of editors were from the US alone, a significantly higher proportion than you’d expect given that only 45% of senior authors of psychology papers were based in the US.
The differences were even starker in the neuroscience journals: overall, 70% of editors were male, and men held the majority of editorial positions in 88% of journals. In this case, the proportion of female editors was not significantly lower than the proportion of female researchers working in neuroscience — a finding that reveals enduring gender disparities in the field more broadly.
Again, most editors came from either North America or Europe, and 52% came just from the US — significantly more than the 36% of senior authors who were US-based.
Based on their results, the team concludes that “the ideas, values and decision-making biases of men, particularly those from the USA, are overrepresented in the editorial positions of the most recognized academic journals in psychology and neuroscience”.
Gender inequality in science is often attributed to the fact that senior academics are more likely to be male, because historically science was male-dominated: it’s argued that as time goes on and more women rise to senior roles, the field will become more equal. Yet this study showed that even the junior roles in psychology journals tended be held disproportionately by men, despite the fact that there are actually more female than male junior psychology faculty (in the US, at least).
This implies that a lack of female academics is not the problem. Instead, there are structural reasons that women are disadvantaged in science, which could make them less likely to be appointed to editorial boards. Women receive lower salaries and face greater childcare demands, for instance, which can result in fewer publications and grants — the kinds of things that journals look for when deciding who to appoint. Rather than simply blaming the inequality of editorial boards on tradition, we should be actively breaking down these existing barriers.
In neuroscience journals, the proportion of female editors did reflect the gender balance of the field. But this shouldn’t be an excuse not to include more women on those editorial boards as well — instead, it’s a good reason to make sure that these boards are more diverse, providing more opportunities and influence for women in a field that lags behind psychology in terms of gender representation.
A lack of diversity among journal editors also likely contributes to psychology’s WEIRD problem. If journal editors are largely men from the United States, then they will probably place higher value on papers that are relevant to Western, male populations, whether consciously or not. Other work has shown how the identity of editors can influence publishing decisions: for example, over the past few decades, the vast majority of editors of top-tier psychology journals have been White — and under White editors, these journals published fewer publications about race.
The current study didn’t consider editors’ race, or indeed other aspects of identity like sexuality or ethnicity — a limitation that the authors acknowledge. Still, it represents an important step towards improving representation among those who hold positions of power in science.