The Need For Scientific Journals to Contribute to Gender Equality

By Elsa Corominas (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya)

“Gender equality” is understood to be the equality of rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys, and there is a “gender gap” when in any area there are systematic inequalities between women and men in terms of their levels of participation, access, rights, remuneration or benefits (definitions from the European Institute for Gender Equality [EIGE]).

The fundamental right of equality of men and women is an essential value for democracy and an absolute necessity in today’s societies. In turn, to properly address matters with a gender perspective it is necessary to take into account sex-based differences when examining any social phenomenon, policy or process. The wide-ranging nature of this issue means that all public authorities must consider it in the analysis, planning and design of policies, and it must also be applied to all quality assurance processes in research and university teaching.

Legislation has for some time reflected this need: equality between men and women is enshrined in Article 14 of the Spanish Constitution and in Article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and in 2015 the United Nations approved the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a goal dedicated to “achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls”. This very week, the Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation, Diana Morant, stated in a plenary session of the Women, Science and Innovation Observatory (OMCI) that her ministry is putting the final touches to a plan to ensure gender equality and non-discrimination in science, technology and innovation, which will act as a framework to align the equality plans of public research and funding bodies and their associated centres with the strategies and actions already in place.

But laws, regulations, protocols and recommendations alone are not enough. Political will and effort are necessary to achieve the goal of equality, or to at least ameliorate the atrocious figures currently reflecting the state of inequality. Prime sources in this respect are the She Figures Handbook 2021, published by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation (Publications Office, 2021), and Científicas en Cifras 2021, a report on the situation in Spain published by the Technical General Secretariat of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.

Now, after years of battles and protests, along with a favourable regulatory framework and increased awareness, we can confidently state that there is true institutional commitment to gender equality. It seems that we are finally moving from words to deeds, that resources, budget allocations and institutional efforts are being dedicated to this issue and some actions are starting to produce visible effects.

At universities, and at educational centres in general, despite the creation of units to ensure equality, there are three major challenges and a long road ahead to meeting them:

Achieving gender equality in decision-making, which means incorporating more women into decision-making bodies and positions, and introducing the gender perspective.

Working towards real equal opportunities in academic and teaching careers.

Incorporating the gender perspective into research and teaching.

All teaching content should take into account sex and the need to achieve a work-life balance, whenever this is relevant to what is being taught, which it frequently is. The same applies to research, which from the outset must question whether sex and gender are relevant to the study and justify the importance (or not) of this question and of providing information about it. This is a key issue when compiling research data, which must always be broken down by sex/gender. It is also necessary to assess whether these considerations have been described in the design of the study, as well as in the discussion and research limitations sections. This is fundamental and could be required by academic journals, given that academic publications must guarantee the very highest standards of quality with regard to the results they publish and this issue should be no less important than the other aspects of scientific quality imposed by rigorous journals during the publishing process. 

Conducting good science with a gender perspective is good for society as a whole, so the need to include it as a research quality requirement speaks for itself. As indicated in the General framework for incorporating the gender perspective in higher education teaching, published by the Catalan University Quality Assurance Agency (AQU Catalunya) in collaboration with the Women and Science Committee of the Inter-university Council of Catalonia (CIC), the inclusion of the gender perspective in educational content improves not only women’s living conditions, but everyone’s, as it enhances teaching quality and the social relevance of the resulting knowledge, technologies and innovations. It is a question of contemplating the biological characteristics of people (sex) and the social and cultural characteristics of both sexes (gender) whenever these matters are relevant to the research and it is appropriate to highlight them.

In teaching methodologies, in the writing of research findings and in the organization of conferences and academic events, we can, and must, make use of inclusive language that takes into account both men and women wherever possible, using terms that are correct without testing the rules of grammar or being overly cumbersome. We can, and must, also ensure that the cases and examples used do not perpetuate gender stereotypes, and strive to make women visible by showing their authorship in scientific articles, citing them whenever appropriate and highlighting the trailblazing work they have done in many areas in which they have historically been overlooked. It is important to raise awareness about the importance of gender equality and to establish and share good practices so that everyone involved in the quality of education and science can appreciate how important this issue is and act accordingly. And scientific journals are one of the main guarantors of research quality in today’s science ecosystem.

The recognition of good practices in gender equality for journals of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT)

The “Recognition of Good Publishing Practices in Gender Equality” is a voluntary indicator that was included for the first time in the 7th call for evaluation (2021) of the Spanish Journal Publishing and Scientific Quality Seal that the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) has been awarding since 2007 to help Spanish scientific journals improve their quality and visibility. The article recently published in this blog by Martínez-Garrido (2022), La mención FECYT de buenas prácticas editoriales en igualdad de género, provides a detailed explanation of the scope of this recognition and the requirements for obtaining it. In 2022, the FECYT renewed the seal for 514 journals, of which just 115 were awarded the recognition (22.5%).

At the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the academic journal support team is responsible for helping journals with the quality seal to meet these criteria, recommending the following actions to their publishing teams and editors:

  • Ensuring that boards are made up of 50% men and 50% women. This parity can be achieved by simply adding as many members of the less represented sex as required. A 40% presence of women is generally considered to be sufficient, but given that this is entirely in the hands of the publishing team, it is advisable to achieve full parity of 50% and 50%.
  • Reviewing the percentage of female reviewers of articles from previous years and checking whether the current year’s trend is on the right track and, if necessary, rectifying it by asking for more reviews from people of the less represented sex. Achieving this goal is more complicated than the previous one, given how difficult it is for many journals to find experts to review their articles. However, in general, paying attention to this issue and publishing in the journal the list of people that have reviewed articles in the previous year and the percentage breakdown of men and women are actions that will help to highlight and correct possible biases.
  • Publishing articles with the authors’ full first name and, if possible, choosing referencing styles that allow this for citations.
  • Reporting whether the data on which the research is based take into account sex, with the aim of enabling the identification of possible differences in published works. This is perhaps the most difficult of the actions to implement due to its scope and magnitude, but as a first step it is advisable for journals to make reference to it in their author guidelines. The note could read as follows:

“If sex or gender is relevant for the study, it should be indicated in some way in the title of the article, the abstract and the design of the research. Please provide data broken down by sex or gender when appropriate.”

  • Publishing in the journal, in the guidelines for submitting articles, a recommendation on using non-sexist language, providing a link to a guide published by the university’s language service or a similar document, with a text such as “It is advisable to use gender-neutral and non-sexist language in the text of the article. For further information, please consult this guide.

It is also advisable to disseminate any actions that have been taken on the websites of the publishing university or institution and in the journal’s social and institutional media. The journal’s commitment to gender equality can also be expressed on its pages, in an editorial or in another type of announcement. Publicizing the commitment made by a journal’s academic and editorial team adds weight to its readers’ perception of the importance of this issue and encourages all the various roles involved in and related to the journal to support equality.

It is easier to cause an impact with the first three actions, given that they are related to the visibility of women and achieving parity. The last two, however, aim to increase the quality of science, requiring inequalities and gender gaps be taken into consideration from the start of research studies and in their presentation. All this has the effect of achieving a fairer, more democratic, more egalitarian society and, therefore, helps both science and universities to have a positive social impact.

To share similar practices in different institutions/countries/regions would help commitment of journals with gender equity.

This post was previously published in Spanish in Aula Magna 2.0:

Corominas Rodríguez, Elsa. (2022). La necesidad de contribuir a la igualdad de género desde las revistas científicas. Aula Magna 2.0. [Blog].