Thoughts on the Gender Ratios of Papers Published in Ethics and the Journal of Moral Philosophy

Before beginning, I would like to note that what I say here is more in the way of starting a discussion than it is a way of stating anything certain. I hope that people will read what I say in this vein.

* * *

As discussed in this very interesting post at New Apps, in the Journal of Moral Philosophy (JMP), male-coded authors account for 82.5% of authors of all articles inspected. In Ethics, authors coded as male account for 80% of all authors of inspected articles. These are interesting facts. First, conventional wisdom is that women are disproportionately likely to specialize in moral philosophy. So, if there were any area that women tended to publish in, then moral philosophy ought to be it. It is striking then that even in this area of philosophy, women are publishing significantly less than men. Second, both JMP and especially Ethics, which is triple blind, are thought to be top of the line in terms of their peer-review processes. These facts raise the question, what’s going on here?

There are a few things that likely work together:

(1) Implicit gender bias. Even with rigorous peer-review processes, there may be very little blind review anymore. Many of us present our in-progress work in talks and conferences or post it on our personal webpages. As a result, the gender of the author may be known and trigger implicit bias.

(2) Stereotype threat. Stereotype threat may lead women to be less confident about the quality of their work. Both JMP and Ethics have very good reputations in the field. Women may be more likely to think that their work isn’t good enough and fail to submit their papers to journals with high standing. I can say that, until recently, I have fallen prey to this phenomenon.

In response to these points, one might wonder whether women really are disproportionately publishing less than men in these journals. The answer will depend on how many women there are in philosophy and, more specifically, how many women specialize in moral philosophy. Recent data suggests that women represent 22% of philosophers at the faculty level (see here) in the United States. If this number translates to area of specialization – i.e., 22% of moral philosophers are women – then perhaps women are not publishing disproportionately less than men in JMP and Ethics. In fact, the numbers are what we should expect. However, if conventional wisdom is correct and women are more likely to specialize in moral philosophy, then we should expect more than 22% of the papers in JMP and Ethics to be authored by women. Even if the conventional view is right, I am not sure just how much more we should expect. Some beginning ideas can be derived from this discussion. However, in general, it seems to me that we need more data in order to determine how many women specialize in moral philosophy. And, without this information we are unable to determine whether women are genuinely being under represented in journals such as JMP and Ethics.

Imagine that women are proportionately represented in the journals we are discussing (e.g., imagine that 22% of women specialize in moral philosophy and 22% of papers in Ethics and JMP are by women). Could there be any reason for ensuring that more papers by women are published in these journals? Possibly, yes, for two reasons.

A.  It could be a partial solution to the alienation problem.

Molly Paxton, Carrie Figor, and Valerie Tiberius,[1] argue that “there is an overall decline in the proportion of women in philosophy as one travels up the academic hierarchy.” For example, women represent 30% of those who graduate with a Ph.D. in philosophy. Yet, only 22% of women are philosophy faculty.

I think that one explanation of the lack of women in philosophy (that relates to the “lack of role models” which is discussed in the Paxton et. al article) is, what I will call, the alienation hypothesis. Because of the small number of women in faculty positions, because of the small number of papers written by women in the most prominent journals, because of the general invisibility of women in philosophy, many women come to feel that there is no place for them in the discipline. This idea may become solidified with more exposure to the discipline as such beliefs are further confirmed. This may explain why the number of women in philosophy decreases stepwise.

Ensuring that there are more papers by women in journals such as Ethics and JMP could potentially be a way to reduce the alienation that women within the field often feel and, in turn, be a way to increase the number of women who graduate with Ph.D.s and eventually seek faculty positions in philosophy.

B. It could be a means of repair for implicit bias.

Furthermore, implicit bias is likely at least partially the cause of the exclusion of women in high standing journals. It is not certain that we are morally responsible for our implicit biases and, in turn, that we owe repair for the bad consequences that result from them. These are hotly contested issues, after all. But, may be we are responsible and may be we do owe repair. If we are and we do, then ensuring that papers by women (and other excluded minorities) have a greater presence in Ethics and JMP and other prominent journals could be a way of making repair for their exclusion.

If there are reasons for ensuring that more papers by women appear in journals of high standing, such as Ethics and JMP, how should we accomplish this? The gold standard of peer review, namely, triple blind, may not be enough for the reasons mentioned above. Some have suggested that, as a compliment to robust peer-review, we should institute a quota of some sort (requiring that a certain amount of published papers are by women in each issue). Would this be a good idea? What might be the drawbacks?

The most obvious objection to quotas is similar to one that arises with general discussions of affirmative action: namely, the quality objection. If it is required that, say, 35% of papers in Ethics and JMP are by women, wouldn’t this require Ethics and JMP to let in papers that wouldn’t normally meet their high standards? In other words, wouldn’t a quota diminish the quality of the work published in these journals? The answer is no, not necessarily. Women often author papers of high quality. This is evidenced in the women-authored papers that are published in Ethics and JMP. However, because of implicit bias, it is likely that high quality papers by women (and other minorities) that have been previously submitted to these journals but were unjustifiably excluded. A quota might give us the pause we need, as reviewers, to ensure that such papers are not excluded any longer.

This isn’t to say that quotas are ultimately the right solution.  There are likely many other objections to consider.  I hope that we will discuss them and the possibilities of other better solutions, if there are any.  I raise this suggestion as what I hope will segue into further discussion about the specific manifestations of the gender problem in philosophy and potential solutions.

Update: Since I wrote this post, a few different discussions about diversity and inclusiveness in publishing have popped up.   Sherry Irwin discusses gender ratios in Aesthetics journals at Aesthetics for Birds.  Helen DeCruz has written a follow up piece at New Apps about how implicit bias might slip in during reviewing processes, despite reviewers’ best efforts.







[1] Molly Paxton, Carrie Figdor, and Valerie Tiberius, “Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of women in Philosophy,” Hypatia 27.4: 949-957.

20 responses

  1. OK, we’ll get your shopping list published in Ethics because of this thoughtful post. Whoever said feminism hurts women’s careers is clearly out of date.

    – The Editors

  2. Intimidated – I am merely raising all of this as a point of discussion. In the end, I’m not sure I support quotas. However, I think it would be better if you engage with the substance of the issues at hand and directly explain your worries. Thanks.

  3. Meena, does anyone have the data on percentage of submissions from women at these journals? I know Ergo keeps track of this but I wouldn’t be surprised if other journals did not.

  4. Good question, Christy. I need to look into this. Having information about submissions by women would help to confirm the role that self-selection plays in the lack of women-authored papers. I am guessing that it plays a fairly significant role.

  5. Thanks for your post Meena!

    So first let me just say that I completely agree that we need to do much more to improve the position of women in the discipline. And I agree with you that young women are more likely to stay in the profession if they feel confident that their hard work will translate into good entry jobs and promotions down the track. Having said that, I don’t think a quota system for top journals is a good idea for one simple reason: it is very likely to reinforce the prejudice we are trying to address in the first place. If women are disadvantaged in the profession partly as a result of the false belief that women don’t have a knack for philosophy, then a quota system at top journals is likely to reinforce this prejudice.

    Now, you might reply by saying that implicit bias harms particular women even when journals adopt a good blind reviewing process. And you mention that it is almost impossible to keep the identity of authors strictly confidential in a world where people make their work available in blogs, at philpapers etc. I agree there is a problem here, but I think this problem can be significantly reduced with small changes to the reviewing process. For instance, authors (male and female) should be encouraged to change the title of their paper for review. Another small but important step is for journals to make it clear to reviewers that they should decline an invitation to review a paper if they know the identity of the author. Now there is already an implicit professional norm to that effect, but it wouldn’t hurt to make that norm explicit.

    I know a lot needs to be done if we are serious about achieving better representation of women in the discipline. Given some remarks I have recently seen in blogs or heard in Conferences, we should also actively resist the sexist tendency to explain away women’s success in the profession by reference to their personal connections, looks, etc. A blind reviewing process in top philosophy journals is one of the best ways that women can prove the sexist wrong, and show that they can be just as creative and just as insightful as their male counterparts.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Luara. Again, I think the discussion may run parallel to discussions about affirmative action more generally or in other areas. Many people argue against affirmative action in the workplace for the reasons that you mention – namely, that it may be stigmatizing. In the end, I’m not sure if this is really the case. Research shows that once people are surrounded by people of colour, for example, and start working with them they start to perceive people of colour differently and more positively. I wonder if something similar wouldn’t apply to the case of seeing more articles by women in top tier journals. Once they are there, we may view the authors and their work more positively. [For discussion of related issues see Elizabeth Anderson’s, The Imperative of Integration, chapter 6 (especially p. 145, which discusses the “contact hypothesis”) and chapter 7 (especially p. 147 and p. 150, which discusses how affirmative action can be without stigmatization.]

      I am also more sceptical than you are about the possibility of ensuring that papers are genuinely blindly reviewed. A mere title change is unlikely to address all of my worries, since most of us present our work at a variety of venues and the substance of our papers becomes known to a broad audience. I agree that it would help greatly if people declined to review papers when the author is known to them. There may be some problems with this, however. In some areas of research there may be few people to ask to review a paper in the first place. This seems to be more so as philosophy becomes more and more specialized. If the inner circle in a particular subfield is already small, then it may be difficult if not impossible to find a reviewer who does not know the author.

      Furthermore, there is some research that suggests that people’s implicit bias can be activated by things that are more subtle than one’s name. For example, different uses of language styles or the way that examples are framed may trigger implicit bias. If this is right, then quotas might be a better way of correcting for implicit bias.

      Again, this isn’t a definitive argument in favour of quotas. I’m just suggesting that the case against it may not be so clear.

      • Just a quick reply to your last comment Meena. First, as for blind review, I am in full agreement with Helen’s comments above, so I won’t say anything more about that.

        As for affirmative action, I agree that it can play an important role in achieving social justice. However, it seems to me that affirmative action should be used when the disadvantage of some affected group cannot be rectified by removing biases at the level of admission to certain positions, say in tertiary education. In Brazil, for instance, we have an unbiased system of entry to university (a multiple choice test and no identifying information about the student), but Afro-Brazilians still struggle to get access to high quality tertiary education because they come from highly disadvantaged educational backgrounds. So affirmative action is justified here. And, as you say, once a disadvantaged group is admitted, the result is often not stigmatisation because it is acknowledged that they cannot compete on an equal footing with those from a much more privileged socio-economic background. Now is the case of women submitting to top journal analogous? Well it seems to me that if we could do more to remove biases in the reviewing process, there would be no justification for a quota, because it is not the case that women, in general, are at a disadvantage when it comes to writing papers of the highest quality. As far as I know, the discipline is not segregated in such a way that women often lack the skills to compete with men for publication at top journals.

        Now, while it is reassuring to hear that affirmative action has not resulted in stigmatisation of people of colour in the workplace, I worry that these results will not transfer to the case of women being published in top journals. If it were known that some journals had a quota system for women, then this would call into question the merit of all female authors whose work is accepted in that journal. Are they being accepted because there is a quota or because their work deserves to be in the journal? Now, we should all agree that there is enough good work that deserves to be in these journals written by women to fill the quota. I can see that this is a point you want to make clear. And you seem to be quite optimistic that if this work were to be accepted readers would immediately recognise that the work deserves to be there, and thus would not generate stigmatisation of women authors generally. But I wonder if this would be true in such a high stakes meritocratic context as a top journal. That’s an empirical question. My worry really is that there is already a massive tendency to explain away the success of women in terms of who they are personally connected to, who they are dating/married to, etc. rather than recognising the merit of their work (and isn’t the merit of philosophical work such a contested issue anyway?). A quota system will just add fuel to this fire. And what is worse, a quota system will take away one of the best ways women can prove that they can in fact compete with men on an equal basis (so long as they are protected from the negative effect of implicit bias). As things stand, pointing to a publication in a top journal can block the sexist from trying to cast doubt on the philosophical abilities of a female philosopher (the publication speaks for itself, as it were). Introduce a quota system, and the sexist gets the upper hand.

  6. Pingback: Philosoph-Her on Gender and Journals | Feminist Philosophers

  7. I think that anonymous reviewing can be obtained for the majority of cases. It requires some restraint from referees and some caution from authors, but it can be done. Just based on my personal experience as a reviewer, I usually cannot guess who the author is. I do exercise restraint (i.e., I do not google the title) – perhaps editors need to be explicit about this in their guidelines (“Please do not try to find out the identity of the author”). On the occasions when I know the author, I always tell the editor (e.g., I know who the author is because I saw the talk for this paper; I know the author and this is the topic of her dissertation). Interestingly, in some cases the editor asked me to review anyway because they had difficulties finding a referee. This was a case of a very small area of expertise so I agreed (I also had no personal connection to the author, still, I prefer anonymous review also as a reviewer). But this was the exception. Most areas of philosophy I review papers for, say, the epistemology of testimony, embodied/extended cognition, have many players so it is possible to make an educated guess but one cannot be certain (something I keep in mind when refereeing).
    For my own work, I go through great lengths to help ensure anonymity. I never upload full drafts online on academia or other platforms. I use a different working title for papers than for the journal article. When the abstract is uploaded, I make sure the abstract I submit is phrased differently. Even on Facebook and other social media, I don’t disclose what I’m working on for the moment. Of course, I do share my work privately with a few people to get some feedback and exchange of ideas. And I aim to present a paper at least at a departmental reading group, or preferably, in a conference.

  8. Helen and Luara – Thank you both for these engaging and thoughtful comments. In many ways, I agree with both of you: 1. Peer review could be made stronger; 2. We should only consider quotas if other methods such as peer review don’t work. That said, I ultimately have concerns in relation to both points.

    On the first point, I am not as optimistic as both of you are about the strength of peer review. As it is, journals already require that people not review work by people they know. It is clear that people still do review papers by people they know (Helen herself admits to at least one case). Furthermore, when it comes to work by “big shots” who present their work widely and over long periods of time, most people in the field will come to know their work. One remedy would be to do as Helen seems to do – not to circulate her work very widely before submitting her work for review – but this seems like a bad idea for many of us who value robust criticism before submitting our work for review. I think I would lose a lot if I couldn’t seek comments on my work before submitting anywhere.

    On the second point, even if we could secure a more robust form of peer review, I am also concerned about grounds for implicit bias slipping in and that would work to exclude work by women. From the studies on implicit bias and CVs it clear is that seemingly innocuous things can work to trigger implicit bias – such as listing what clubs you participate in, mentioning that you are a mother, etc. There is some reason to be worried about this sort of thing happening in papers. For example, I am writing a paper currently that mentions that I breastfed and uses this example to make a philosophical point. This is an obvious indicator that I (the author) am female. Even with rigorous peer review, this kind of example could trigger an implicit bias. So, again, I am less confident than both of you that peer review can be truly blind, but even if it can, it isn’t clear to me that this will protect against implicit bias being triggered. So, it could very well be that other options such as quotas are a necessary. Of course, I could just leave the breastfeeding example out, but I would think that something important is lost, since I think this is key to the philosophical point that I am making.

    Thank you for continuing this conversation.

  9. I think this post and a subsequent response to it are compromised by their recurring use of ableist language, that is, by the use of terms such as ‘triple blind,’ ‘good blind reviewing,’ and ‘genuinely blind reviewed.’ Increasingly, philosophers are acknowledging that this language is derogatory and demeans (and therefore should be avoided) insofar as it relies up the equation of seeing with knowledge and not seeing with lack thereof. A few years ago, I wrote two posts for New Apps on this very use of ableist language. One of the posts is here: and the other post is here: To read an excellent article by African American feminist disability theorist Sami Schalk on the use of ableist metaphors (in particular) and ableist language (more generally) that was published in a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly (that I guest edited) whose theme was Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory by Taking Account of Disability, follow this link:

    • Shelley – Thank you for bringing this to my attention. “Anonymous review” would obviously be better than “blind review”. What is the appropriate term for “triple blind”?

  10. Meena,
    I would probably write the sentence something like this:
    “Second, both JMP and especially Ethics, which use triply-anonymous reviewing procedures, are thought to be top of the line in terms of their peer-review processes.”

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  12. Here’s a proposal, if you’re a journal editor.

    1. Explicitly include, on your home page, an invitation like this. “We especially encourage submissions from members of groups underrepresented in Philosophy [alternatively, thus far underrepresented in our back catalogue] such as women, those who identify as LGBTQQIP2SAA, members of visible minorities, disable persons, and any others whose voice is underrepresented.”

    2. Explicitly pledge, on your home page, to make a good faith effort to accept papers from these groups in proportion to their submission rates.

    3. Invite submitters to voluntarily disclose, to the editors and only to the editors, whether they are members of underrepresented groups. This is for both statistical purposes, and as an aid to keeping the pledge listed in #2.

  13. The concerns about the difficulty of anonymous peer review strikes me as especially a problem for people who are well-known in the field, senior professors at research-intensive universities. But junior scholars’ ideas are typically less known. The majority of scholars aren’t very prominent. Purely numerically, most of us work as adjuncts, postdocs, grad students, or profs in teaching-oriented schools and only a minority of us are widely known. So perhaps triple anonymous reviewing (i.e., editor does not know identity of author), explicit asking people not to google titles, and encouraging minorities to submit (and keeping track of submissions by gender etc to see if that works out) could go already a far way in ensuring a fairer process?

  14. Pingback: Thoughts on the Gender Ratios of Papers Published in Ethics and the Journal of Moral Philosophy | Public Philosophy Journal

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