Seriously Sulking Superbowl Sunday, sans Superbowl

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.


  1. One of the most weird things that happened to me (as a referee) recently: I reviewed a paper for a similar CSL and found that the authors really hyped-up the results and essentially nothing in the paper warranted publication as a Letter (except that it was a ‘short’ paper). I wrote a long detailed report and sent it off. The editors did not send me the referee reply report from the authors, if there was any, and in a few weeks I saw that the paper was accepted! I was so surprised by this and I ended up wasting time in comparing the accepted version and the version sent to me and the difference is most likely less than 20%. Mostly language and rearrangement of text and no change in hyped-up conclusions! I really felt very bad and had thoughts of writing to the editor about wasting my time going through the paper and writing a detailed referee report, if they are going to be ignored this way. Somehow eventually I ended up not writing back and I regret it. Has this happened to you and what are your suggestions regarding how to deal with such a situation?

  2. Oh yes, it happened to me several times. It’s always infuriating and it always happens when the authors are heavy hitters (never for us mortals) and the editor simply chooses to side with them over you. I have often thought about complaining, but never did. I think unless you are a heavy hitter yourself, you might just get labeled as a trouble-maker, which won’t help your own papers published. So it’s a judgement call, if it’s worth it to you. I am not saying you have to be quiet, but that they won’t welcome your complaints (you will be essentially accusing them of favoritism and possibly lax ethics). However, I will say that it is not uncommon for the authors to request a new referee after a previous one was particularly negative, so just the fact that you didn’t get it for re-review doesn’t mean much in itself; I would say that as long as an independent referee was brought in instead of you and given all the correspondence, the editor is doing their job. Maybe this is what happened in your case, but more likely the editor just decided to side with someone they respected more/knew better over you… 😦

  3. I finally refused to review a specific heavy hitter in my field. Every single time I was ignored in my reviews. It made no difference how detailed and well-cited my complaints about the manuscripts were. So I quit. Turns out that later I found out others (including men) felt and did the same thing. At least that made me feel better and know that I was not alone about just saying NO.

  4. There’s data on the mid-career “F*** THIS S***” effect in IT. I suspect it is the same in science. At some point, some number of people get tired of fighting the headwind and go do something else. I’m sorry to hear the headwind has been particularly strong for you lately!

  5. Low-n, but I certainly think that I get fewer “this is solid, but uninteresting work” brushoffs from PSL for papers that have my Big Shot Coauthor on them. However, the downside is that credit flows to BSC independent of his level of involvement (e.g. a paper with BSC as third of four authors referred to as “that BSC paper”). I have caught myself doing this with other groups, even! This effect, of course, interacts unpleasantly with all of the usual gender/nationality issues.

    I’m sure most bad author behavior is by big-shot senior folks, but my worst interaction was with a postdoc solo author, who took a request for more details as a personal insult. Physics graduate school, in particular, can train people to be pretty aggressive in both critique and response, and during my training I definitely had to have my referee responses significantly moderated and smoothed out by my advisor once or twice. The idea of students learning crueler behavior from their big-shot advisor makes me fairly sad!

  6. Guh… I can only imagine how flipping annoying that would be from my female-biased life science corner of the universe. Still there is a leaky pipeline issue for the most high profile positions for sure, and I imagine it’s due to this sort of stuff happening a lot more than I’m personally aware. :/

  7. About a year ago, I was trying to decide if I really wanted to be in academia at all. To be honest, if I hadn’t gotten this job (which I’m really enjoying), I would probably be opening a bakery right now. I love research, but I know the game is rigged and I just don’t want to play dice that way.

  8. Oooof. I find the worst part about modern sexism is that I can never stop wondering if some criticism/set back is reflective of the quality of the work. There is always this nagging thought that maybe my work/comment/proposal/idea would be received differently if I had a Y chromosome, and that wears me down. Alas, I don’t think it is unique to academia, but it is certainly emphasized by the nature of peer review, and its importance to the research enterprise.

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