Getting Women Into Science-Filled Rooms

04/20/2015 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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This post is also authored by Lori Holt.

Why would three senior professors at Carnegie Mellon University, with responsibilities for research labs, teaching, families, and grand but old houses (this is Pittsburgh), take time to write an article on the distribution of authors by gender in a major journal in their field? It's because we are women, and we saw a pattern that has been all too familiar to us as we made our own way in science -- females were not there.

We wrote a discussion piece for the highly regarded international journal Cognition because its special issue highlighting the future of our field, cognitive science, had only one woman author out of 19. Examination of other recent special issues exhibited a similar trend -- the one exception being an issue on child development co-edited by a woman.

We understand probabilities, and we certainly don't expect the distribution of authorship to be lock-stepped to the gender distribution in our field. The pattern is systematic enough, however, to belie attribution to the vagaries of chance, even taking into account the fact that men considerably out-number women in senior positions in cognitive science.

It is not our intention to portray Cognition, its editors, or its publisher, as chauvinists or conspirators, because we are certain they are not. They have fallen into all too familiar a trap in STEM-science land, or rather, a set of them. It's not just that the numbers in the pool of senior scientists don't favor finding women authors. Women don't come to mind as readily as men when lists of authors are generated for invitation -- and the minds in question are not unique to men. Women tend not to see themselves in calls for leadership roles, such as authoring articles intended to shape the field. And practices of academic publishing don't impose a proportional representation of gender, or for that matter, race, country of origin, and so on; nor should they, for the sake of scientific integrity.

In an article to appear in the May-June issue of the APS Observer, the magazine for members of the Association for Psychological Science, Vanessa Lazar and Betty Tuller, current director of NSF's Program in Perception, Action, and Cognition, point out another facet of the problem: Women submit far fewer research proposals to the program than men, despite achieving essentially equal outcomes. Since academic success begins with acquiring the funds needed to do research, it seems that female scientists not only aren't invited to enter the room, they don't bang on the door.

If we know these patterns and practices exist, you might ask, why did we bother writing a piece for Cognition calling attention to their effects on gender balance? We did so, because we believe that there are benefits to pointing out clear examples when they emerge. We recognize that it takes a lot of waves to make a pearly sand, but every wavelet contributes. We suspect that the next call for a special issue of Cognition or its peers will make its way to a few more women, who, in turn, may think a bit harder about turning away from their existing backlog to write an over-view article, which may be seen by a younger cohort as a signal that their contributions too will be recognized, which may keep them in the long pipeline towards becoming independent researchers and scholars with their own labs.

We on our part will continue fueling the process -- in our roles as researchers, mentors, teachers, and advocates, and we will encourage our male and female colleagues at Carnegie Mellon and beyond to do the same.