As I mentioned before, I am in a subfield with very, very few women. My general field seems not to be quite so bad (even though it’s overall well under 20% women); I have female colleagues in the department whose subfields seem to have more women and be generally supportive of women. Mine seems to be really, really weird. I often complain here that men this or men that, but the reality is that often I don’t know if something is wrong with me individually or if it’s a male/female difference, because there are no women other than me that I could compare with. (I complain about men in my profession a lot, but just in case it’s not clear, let me state for the record: I don’t hate men; quite the contrary. I love men. I love men as much as you could imagine any straight woman who’s also a mom to three boys would love men (that’s a lot, by the way). Which is also part of the reason why all these men, wherever I turn, drive me freakin’ bananas.)
In my smallest subfield (defined as the 300-person community, whose conference I am on the advisory board of and never miss), I am the only senior woman with any sway. There is one woman who’s more senior, but unfortunately for reasons I can’t really discuss here, she’s not held in very high regard and is largely ignored, even though she’s a very capable woman who’s done great work. I try to boost her signal whenever I can, but it’s not enough. There are no junior female group leaders or even anyone on the way to becoming one. The European and Asian groups are all male and they look at me like I’d sprouted a second head if I hint that there’s something wrong with a 50-person sausage-fest research group. The subfield’s footprint in the US is not very large, so there are no other women here either, other than the occasional grad student or postdoc, all of whom eventually vanish.
I am slated to be on a grant-review panel in the near future. The panel is on the experimental arm of one of the topics I work on. Every single proposal in the roster is written by one or more men. Every single panelist but me is a man. Maybe I should introduce myself with “Hi, I am Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica, and I am here to be the token woman for this panel.”
However, what prompted this post has to do with papers.
Whenever I submit to Prestigious Society Letters, this is usually what I get:
Referee B, Round 1: There’s nothing wrong with the paper, it’s interesting and correct, I’m just not feelin’ it. It’s just not hot enough or cool enough for PSL. Send it to Reputable Society Journal or More Applied Letters instead.
I revise, clarify, try to make my case better, bend over backwards to address every single bit of minutiae. I may request an additional or different referee, if I feel one has been particularly hostile.
Referee B, Round 2: Nah. Nice try. Still not feelin’ it.
Because I am not a fan of wasting time, I occasionally do but usually don’t dispute this decision, and I transfer the paper to Reputable Society Journal or More Applied Letters. But, generally, all referees have to be swooning over my paper for it to make it into PSL; if even one of them is unimpressed, it’s a no-go. I have certainly seen the same editor send a paper by a heavy hitter (it’s always a man, of course) to as many referees as needed until one is finally impressed, even though I and another referee both were not, and then have the paper published.
A few months ago, a student and I submitted a paper to a journal and one of the reports was just nasty. It basically called us idiots and mistakenly pointed out how we didn’t know how to properly label our own system’s parts. It did point out one correct thing, which is that we claimed was one novel aspect was actually done somewhere we didn’t notice. I felt so ashamed! I am always really very careful that we have a very comprehensive review of the literature, that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, so I was so embarrassed and I felt like I had failed my student that I had allowed us to submit a manuscript in which that one thing was overlooked.
In contrast, about two months ago, two European men wrote a paper and submitted it to PSL. Basically, what they are doing is solving very, very accurately an approximate model; their super-accurate solution is a total overkill, because their model has well-known limits of validity that they don’t seem to appreciate, so all the added accuracy is totally unnecessary. They already published a couple of high-profile papers with the same general idea. Now they wanted to introduce a phenomenon that comes from the overkill solution, gave the phenomenon and some of it aspects specific names, and made a big fuss about it. The problem is that the phenomenon they talk about already exists within a much more broadly applicable and rigorous (and thus complicated) theoretical framework, it already has well-known names for its parts, and the whole thing has been around for over half a century and is definitely not what you would call obscure. They showed a blatant lack of knowledge about the general framework of the field and the applicability of their model. I wrote a collegial but essentially scathing review, detailing the above. If I received such a review, I would retreat with my tail between my legs, and would likely be licking my wounds for a while. I would not attempt to resubmit to PSL at all, or possibly anywhere.
But I now see that they have resubmitted to this high-profile journal (the paper is back with the editors). The authors might have asked for a new reviewer; we’ll see if I get it back. I am dying to see what they could have possibly argued against in my report. I met one of the authors once, and he sure has an enormous ego. I often wish I could have such a giant ego. Where could I get myself one? A giant ego is like a huge marshmallow buffer around you, protecting all of your breakables from the people who try to throw metaphorical punches at you.
I am always polite to referees, and try to address every issue they raised, even if I don’t agree. I am also always impressed when people take the issues seriously and respond carefully and professionally when I am the referee. But I would be lying if I said that I’d never received ridiculous displays of chest-thumping, especially from male scientists with huge egos, in the form of a rebuttal letter. Sometimes I think, “Why do editors even forward this as a rebuttal? This is completely unprofessional.” I have also received equally unprofessional reports myself, and I guarantee that I have never written such a nasty, vicious, dismissive report as I occasionally receive.
I wonder how many people are just assholes (in which case, why do we collectively let them get away with it?) versus how many get this macho need to dress down a paper written by a woman, who seem to get off on showing me my place.
(I can’t even think how often the same thing happens in panel reviews. I dare not think, because I have two proposals in review, and will write another one that’s due in a month.)
Sorry I am such a downer on the blog these days, but this is what’s been on my mind. I suppose this is how you lose women from science. It’s the women like me, who we’ve been doing this for years, and who stop to ask, “Why the f*ck am I doing this? This is stupid, unfair, and has nothing to do with the quality of science. And why is the world full of chest-thumping a$$holes?” This $hit is like radiation poisoning; it compounds, until you feel so sick that you really have no wish to keep going.
I have loved you, science, for so long, but you don’t really love me back. You usually tolerate me around as long as I don’t make much noise, but when I piss you off — the uppity bitch that I am — because I apply for a grant or send a paper to a journal above my station, you slap me, spit on me, and give me a cold shoulder.