When Statistics Won’t Suffice: How University Presses Can Act to Support Women in Science

Part of the #RaiseUP 2020 University Press Week Blog Tour: Scientific Voices.

That women in science must confront disproportionately significant obstacles to succeed is old news – thousands of years old.  Gatekeepers (sometimes self-appointed) of scientific canon have been refusing to acknowledge the contributions of women since at least c.1500 BC, when the massive accrual of botanical knowledge spurred by Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s interest in plant-based medicine was first attributed to her male co-regent. Hardly surprising, given that she had to resort to commissioning depictions of herself with a false beard in order to appease the masses who did not believe a woman could be intelligent enough to rule.

When I speak to individuals or groups about the inequities faced by women in science, I often focus on peer-reviewed quantitative analysis, because you can’t argue with numbers, right? (Americans, insert your preferred sarcastic emoji here.) But operating from a place that requires proving over and over the existence of a problem can become just another barrier to solving it. The steady accumulation of both statistical and anecdotal information detailing the injustices that women – and especially BIPOC – in science are forced to navigate throughout our careers has clearly demonstrated the reality of the situation. Incredulity is no longer an acceptable response.

It seems more impactful at this juncture to discuss what we can do about pervasive inequity from within our own roles. Scientific and academic publishers (though we may often forget this in the relentless rumpus of Zoom) have power. The only appropriate modus operandi at this point is to wield our influence on behalf of underrepresented voices in science. How can we do this? I can’t claim to have The Answers, but I can offer suggestions.

As an overarching commitment, we can strive to combat what Dr. June Gruber and Dr. Leah Somerville, professors of psychology at UC Boulder and Harvard, respectively, call a lack of “a sense of belonging.”[1] To wit, we know damn well when we’re not wanted. We have plenty of data that indicates institutionalized lack of respect and refusal to acknowledge women scientists’ authority is a major driver of the much-lamented ‘pipeline problem.’ As book publishers, we may not be able to force department heads to allocate resources more equitably or hiring managers to value diversity on their teams, but we can firmly demonstrate to women scientists that their voices, expertise, and insights are VERY MUCH wanted.

We can be purposeful about pursuing and offering publishing contracts to women, especially women who are early in their careers and fighting hard for visibility to support their upward momentum.

We can advocate for royalties advances that could offset the costs of child or elder care, giving women authors precious breathing room to be creative.

We can write letters of support for women in academia seeking sabbaticals and grants.

We can do our best to ensure the language and examples used in our books are inclusive.

We can always reach out to women first when we have paid review opportunities. We can leave the door open when they say no.

We know as acquisitions editors that there is an opportunity cost associated with every book we sign: if we are expending limited resources publishing a certain project, what other projects are we not publishing? We can pass on proposals from established white men that may be easier to get approved due to their experience writing, instead investing more time in working with women authors who may need greater editorial engagement to gain that crucial experience.

We can rigorously follow the work being done by Black, Brown, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ women in our commissioning areas, and offer our support, whether that comes in the form of a book contract, a paid review, or simply sharing our networks. It has been amply demonstrated that the scientific world is even more unwelcoming and difficult for BIPOC, and so our efforts must focus even more on these women.

We can publish books not only by women in science, but about them. There are few industries where the adage “representation matters” is so immediately applicable. Shining a light on the achievements of women in science through the enduring written word so that others can be inspired by their discoveries is, to my mind, one of the best ways we can shift scientific narrative from marginalizing women to centering them.[2] We are only aware of the contributions of Hatshepsut because, 3000 years ago, a scribe put ink to papyrus.

Finally, we must acknowledge that we can do real and lasting harm by perpetuating the status quo when we do not keep these priorities at the forefront of our acquisitions strategies.

In science, we know that while knowledge can be its own reward, there are times when providing proof only matters insofar as it spurs action.

Tiffany Gasbarrini is the Senior Acquisitions Editor for Life Sciences at Johns Hopkins University Press.
  1. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/10/three-trouble-spots-facing-women-science-and-how-we-can-tackle-them
  2. See JHUP’s recent and forthcoming books on Women in Vertebrate Paleontology and Women in Wildlife for examples. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/rebels-scholars-explorers