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.

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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.