Solving the skewed sex ratio problem in science

In 2003 Milner-Gulland et al. wrote a paper on extreme adult sex ratios in saiga antelope. Males had become so rare in some years that the behavior of the system became dysfunctional and population performance suffered catastrophically. The only other environments where I know of heavily skewed adult sex ratios are university science faculties. Except here the skew is in the other direction, with females being rare. Social scientists have shown that skewed sex ratios in the workplace can negatively impact many performance metrics (e.g. Fenwick and Neal 2001).

Many scientists are rightly concerned by the paucity of women on the faculty of many science departments, and there has been much contemplation on the causes of attrition as more men progress from Ph.D. to post-doc to a faculty position to full professor than women. There are hypotheses proposed to explain this ranging from men being more likely than women to express the traits thought to aid success in academia including self-belief and an ability to brush off criticism, through to a lack of adequate home life provision. However, identification of these causes does not seem to be having much of an effect on reducing the skewed sex ratio. For example, of 43 researchers offered prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowships this year, 41 were men (see here). I am not entirely surprised by this. Many ‘solutions’ I have heard proposed to address the skewed sex ratio problem seem unlikely to succeed. For example, one popular call is for women’s groups to be set up. No one has ever succeeded in explaining to me how that is supposed to lead to change.

Whatever the proximate reasons for the skewed sex ratio, the possible ultimate solutions are clear. It is demographically obvious how to modify adult sex ratios. You either eradicate any differential mortality rates between the sexes at each age or stage, or you skew the birth sex ratio to ensure the adult sex ratio is close to unity. Clearly I am not going to advocate any mechanisms to actually elevate the mortality rate of male scientists but it is clear how to reduce the loss of women to science at each of the career transitions where attrition occurs. You mandate the appointment of equal numbers of men and women at each level. So the Royal Society would appoint an equal number of male and female URFs, and 50% of faculty positions and full professorships would go to women. I don’t have a strong opinion of how this is done, but suspect a change in the law may be necessary. Sex-specific job calls, or a mandate that a moving window of previous appointments must not stray between 45% and 55% are two possible mechanisms. There will be other possibilities too.

Such an idea will doubtless generate some dissent. What if you don’t end up appointing the best person because it happened to be a female only job call and a fabulous man wanted to apply? If we are serious about addressing the skewed sex ratio problem then this is a cost we may occasionally have to bear. To my mind, it is a lower cost than hearing of another excellent woman leaving science because she couldn’t find a way to progress. Another argument likely to be raised might be what if there are just insufficient women studying for undergraduate degrees in a particular subject? I will assume that when the majority of people start their Ph.D. studies they envisage a career in academia. So start with the sex ratio of applications to study for a Ph.D. and set mandated targets on that sex ratio rather than a sex ratio of unity. Another argument I have heard raised – primarily by men – is that women won’t want to feel they are being advantaged. Given the current skewed sex ratio, men must be being advantaged, and I don’t hear too many men complaining. I imagine women will be able to cope with a level playing field.

I suspect that once a mandated system has been in place for a generation it could be removed and the sex ratio problem would not return. Although we may never fully understand all the reasons that led to the skewed sex ratio problem we experience today, we will at least have cured the ill. And personally I’d rather be rid of the problem while not completely understanding it, than fully understanding it and not having solved it. In the meantime, as well as implementing mandating we should also pursue other initiatives to improve working academic conditions for both men and women.

I am fed up of hearing about the problem of too few women in science coupled with inaction. I am also fed up of listening to solutions I cannot see working. We need to get our house in order, and there is a way of doing this. I’d be interested to hear what is to stop us levelling the playing field so men and women both have an equal chance of progressing through the ranks.

Tim Coulson
Senior Editor, Journal of Animal Ecology
(twitter: @tncoulson)


Fenwick, G.D., and Neal, D.J.. “Effect of gender composition on group performance.” Gender, Work & Organization 8.2 (2001): 205-225.

Milner-Gulland, E. J., et al. “Conservation: reproductive collapse in saiga antelope harems.” Nature 422.6928 (2003): 135-135.

25 thoughts on “Solving the skewed sex ratio problem in science

  1. Hi Tim,
    Excellent post and a very important topic. One easy (?) to implement first step would be to introduce double blind review system in more journals since it has been demonstrated that this favours female authors (e.g. Budden et al 2008 TREE). So, given your admirable eagerness to help alleviate the SR bias issue I am now hoping/expecting JAE will follow some other journals (like behav ecol) in introducing double blind review??

    best wishes,

    1. Whilst I agree with the sentiment, there is no evidence that DB review favours female authors (nor, indeed, that single blind, or open, review, penalises them). That the Budden et al. paper is still used as the only evidence for this, despite better studies showing no effect (e.g. Whittaker 2008 TREE), and our own demonstration that the Behavioural Ecology result had nothing to do with the introduction of DB review (Webb et al. 2008 TREE) tells a story. Let’s use our skills as scientists – i.e. the critical assessment of evidence – guide our proposed solutions. Tim’s proposal seems much more likely to succeed than adopting an unproven solution, with no clear mechanism (DB does nothing to change editorial decisions, for example), to a problem that, in publishing, has never been shown to exist.

      1. is this “problem that has never been shown to exist” the reason why some Nature journals and also Conservation Biology have recently introduced double blind review (optional in the Nature journals I believe)? In any case, the point is that JAE could state a good example to address gender bias as a start. Take a look at the number of male vs female on the editorial board in JAE and I think you see my point….

      2. (1) There is super-strong evidence from other fields that DB approaches remove one route of gender biased decision-making, and your conclusion is equivalent to arguing that there are no implicit gender biases in the journal peer-review process (one of the central pillars of academic life & career advancement).

        (2) The likelihood of success once implemented is not the only determinant of priority. Tim himself acknowledges that it’s not clear how you would go about effecting quotas, whether such a move would conflict with other legislation, or whether it could be enacted given countervailing forces. In contrast, DB reviewing is an action that could be taken easily and quickly, and for which there is precedent within the field. We should use our skills as decision-theorists as well as scientists to prioritise actions.

        (3) DB reviewing may not remove gender bias in reviews, improve female representation in academia, or do either in any substantial way. However, this is not the only issue. There are indirect benefits to clearly stating that the organs of the institution – journals – are willing to make material changes in an attempt to rectify injustice.

      3. Based on what I know, many people overwhelming support the idea of DB review because they perceive it can lead to fairer outcomes in some cases (not just gender bias). Even just removing the perception of possible bias is valuable, even if no such bias exists (and I agree with Arild that measuring the size of any gender bias is difficult, so an absence of an obvious bias is not evidence that a bias does not exist). Given that gender bias clearly exists in other aspects of science, we can’t be sure it is absent from the review process, and the cost of changing is minimal, if such a change leads to a perception of improved equity (and therefore more equitable submissions), then it will be worth it.

        The DB review option goes well beyond gender equity, and touches on other aspects. I think author identity does influence some reviews. I have seen plenty of reviews where reviewers mention the reputation of the authors. That is well beyond commenting on the content and merits of the particular paper, and seems to suggest reputation is somewhat influential for at least some reviewers. Again, if the cost of change is small, and if it reduces one possible source of bias, DB review seems worth it.

    2. Double blind review seems like a clear cut decision to me. While there are many arguments that it is not perfect (agreed!) and debates over evidence for gender bias in reviews in the first place, I have seen no cogent arguments that double blind review is worse than single blind.

      On that basis, we should follow the logic set out in this article: accept that we don’t totally understand the problem (i.e. it’s hard to assess evidence for gender biased reviewing in all journals) and simply move to a system that is better.

  2. ‘ The only other environments where I know of heavily skewed adult sex ratios are university science faculties. Except here the skew is in the other direction, with females being rare.’
    Really? Heavily skewed sex ratios seem to be quite common in the animal kingdom where often few males mate with harems of females.

    I think it is often not considered (and you meantion it in a subsentence), that our professorial ranks are made up to a large degree of people who joined them 30 years ago when systemic underrepresentation of women among PhD graduates and postdoctoral scientists was way worse than today. Due to the nature of the tenured position and the really slow turnover in those ranks one can’t say ‘today 48%(?) PhD graduates are women, why are there only 28% women with tenured professorships?’ No matter how well we do, as long as we don’t fire male PIs for the sole purpose of replacing them with women it will take (probably) 15 more years until we can (hopefully) see the more balanced gender ratio that we saw coming up in PhD graduates since the 80s to manifest in the faculty.

    My personal idea (and this too you mentioned briefly) of what could be *fair* to all *currently applying scientists* would be to make every comittee check: what is the gender ratio in applications to our faculty positions and what is the gender ratio in the group that we invite for an interview? If these numbers differ a lot, then people should reconsider their evaluation bias.
    And then, of course, during the interview phase people should be aware of possible biases. However, that’s much harder to objectively quantify and correct.

    This, of course, is a slow change, especially taking into account, that the sex ratio in faculty is (I didn’t actually check it) the average of the ratio of applicants over the last 30-40 years (at best). It will always lag behind the graduation ratio. However, I don’t think (yeah I am male) we should punish today’s male applicants for the gender ratio problems from 30 years ago by mandating the recruitment of one gender over the other *against* the ratio within applicants.

  3. Good to see a call for tangible action. Here’s my (UK-centric) suggestion: for every x academics returned in the REF, a department is expected to have supported y months of paid parental leave. For example, 1 year of parental leave in the last 5 years per 10 academics submitted to the REF (I have not thought through these numbers…) This has two results: first, it make women just back from maternity leave a very attractive proposal to hiring REF-ambitious departments. Second, it encourages men to take more paternity leave, including taking advantage of new shared parental leave opportunities.

    Downside is it might encourage some ill-conceived conceptions. But having a baby for the sake of your career makes a change anyway from having one and ruining your career…!

  4. The British Ecological Society has, since 2009, run a Mentoring Scheme for Women in Ecology. The aim of the mentoring scheme is to help and support those at an earlier stage in their career through the advice and guidance of those with experience of the transitions that these women may be looking to make. This is not only about balancing work with family life, but also making the transition from post-doc to lecturer or a transition out of, or back into, academia. Schemes such as this (and many other learned societies from across other scientific disciplines run them), along with Athena Swan, can be very valuable in supporting women facing difficult career choices and in encouraging a positive workplace culture that benefits both women and men.

  5. I am afraid that whilst I fully support the sentiment behind this post, I think the suggestions being made are very misguided.

    My problem starts in the title: “…the skewed sex ratio problem…” But a skewed sex ratio is not the problem here, this is just one manifestation of the real problem – a sex bias in the way women are treated in STEM. It is not just about recruitment, but in publishing papers, talking at conferences, treatment in the workplace and on fieldwork, work-life balance etc. The suggested mandate might cure this particular symptom but it won’t necessarily cure the ill and doesn’t address any of the other symptoms. The post seems to take a very narrow view of issues associated with women in STEM – just manipulate the sex ratios and everything will be dandy – I think not. It is not simply a matter of equal sex ratios but about ensuring a level playing field in all aspects of the workplace.

    A key problem with the suggested mandate is that it would simply be replacing one broken system with another. A key problem with the current system is that it is outright wrong for a persons sex to influence their chance of being hired. How might a new system work – consider the allocation of fellowships for example. The funder might rank all the applicants according to merit and alongside this note their sex. Applicants are selected in descending order to fill the available positions. Once one sex makes up 50% the funder stops allocating positions to people of that sex. If the next person down the list belongs to that sex that person is rejected because of their sex! But it is outright wrong for a persons sex to influence their chance of being hired!

    You say that “… men must be being advantaged, and I don’t hear too many men complaining.” I think that is completely wrong too and an insult to many men (more needed) standing up for women in the workplace. Indeed, the entire premise of this post is a man complaining about the current advantage men have! and trying to put it right!

    This points to a key problem in trying to resolve the real problem of sex bias. It is imperative that more men are brought on side to understand the issues. Are men really going to be encouraged to support these issues if there is a host of jobs advertised as ‘women only’? Is this really going to incentivise men to engage in issues surrounding equal opportunity and nurture an egalitarian work place? I very much doubt it. In a generation or so, rather than solving all our ills the workforce could easily be even more divided that it is now.

  6. I agree with Alan and others that the whole issue is far more complex than just a ratio adjustment. It is a very important aspect in my view, and something that we should be really concerned about. However, scientific career is a “high risk / high gain” strategy in a classic scenery for dominance hierarchies and risk prone behaviour to become favoured. I believe many good scientists will deliberately drop out (or just quit), with considerable detrimental societal impact. I say scientists, because there are also a considerable number of male scholars, who decide not to play the game. For them it’s not the number of papers thrown out and the citations they did or did not get, the eternal fight for money to do what you were educated and are expected to be doing just to get refusal letters over and over again, literally wasting 90% of the time you invest in such activities and so on and so forth. I think that we tend to value the wrong things in science and as long as it takes you becoming well over 30 years old, more like 40, to get a glimpse of a permanent position (not speaking of part-time jobs, or dual-career options) we deliberately select for a very specific subset of what could be recruited, if we used different optics to look at achievement and valuing people, we might be able to motivate a more balanced ratio of sexes into picking up the challenging and very rewarding job of working in science.

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