The regenerative medicine and cell therapy industry is full of insightful and inspiring women, some of whom I have been lucky enough to meet and work with and, as a female editor, I feel like I do a fairly good job at sharing their voices. Nevertheless, it’s important to be mindful lest my well-meaning gestures come up empty.
With International Woman's Day 2018 calling for people to 'Press for Progress', I wanted to know how well women were already represented on RegMedNet. Encouraged by a recent article in The Atlantic where one journalist consciously tried to correct the gender balance in his stories, and safe in the knowledge that I actively try to commission from and interview women, I was hopeful.
At time of analysis, RegMedNet has published almost 1300 posts covering regenerative medicine and cell therapy. Although this was too many for me to go through one by one, I hoped by estimating the percentage of posts that quoted, mentioned or prominently featured women (for example, as the subject of an interview), it would enough to validate me – or not.
Using RegMedNet’s search function without a search term, all posts were displayed across 26 pages. I counted the number of posts that quoted, mentioned or otherwise featured a women on the first 4 and last 4 pages (n=345 posts). I discounted any posts that were member-exclusive articles from our partner journals, such as Regenerative Medicine or Future Science OA, as I’m not responsible for the commissioning or content on these, leaving me with 293 suitable posts. I also broke down the article types to see if that provided me with any insights.
“The regenerative medicine and cell therapy industry is full of insightful and inspiring women”
After seeing the results, I wanted to assess whether this bias was due to my rate and ratio of commissioning, or a lower proportion of women accepting. I looking how many invitations I sent in the last 12 months of my commissioning tracker (n=145) and counted how many women I commissioned from, and how many women agreed to contribute.
Out of 293 pieces, 54 posts quoted, mentioned or prominently featured a woman, giving me a rough estimate of just over 18%. I was very surprised that the estimated proportion was so low; although I was aware that there would be fewer women than men mentioned, I would have expected it to be closer to 30–40%. Anecdotally, I certainly noticed that more recent posts seemed to feature a higher proportion of women, hopefully due to my increased awareness in conscious commission.
Of those 54 articles, 46% were news articles in which a woman was quoted and 35% were videos or webinars in which women were interviewees or presenters. The remaining 19% articles were written interviews with, or editorials written by women. I found this particularly eye-opening – clearly I haven’t been doing as good a job as I thought.
One factor that may explain this disparity was that I often commission editorials from previous authors and interviewees, relying on the work of previous editors when I’m constrained by time, making the low ratio a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s also easy to commission from speaker lists and event agendas. These often feature a lower proportion of women due to the lower proportions of women in top academic positions, but, again, that’s passing the responsibility on to other people. This could even be a factor I’m exacerbating myself; by disproportionately promoting the achievements of male scientists, I’m furthering the anecdotal view that there aren’t as many women in the field available to fill those top positions.
When commissioning in shorter time frames and with more limited options, for example, around events, it’s easier to be more discerning and invite a higher proportion of woman if necessary to achieve a more equal split. The majority of our video coverage is filmed at events, so this factor could explain the higher proportion of female-led video content. However, when looking to commission a larger volume of content for a more in-depth feature, this thoughtfulness and more time-consuming method of commissioning is harder to maintain. However, could this disparity be explained by less woman accepting invitations to contribute in the first place?
The aim of this exercise was to validate the ‘confidence gap’ theory in the context of commissioning and participating in RegMedNet features. Assessing my commissioning tracker, I looked at how many women compared with men I invited to contribute, and the proportion of women compared with men that agreed.
“Evidence shows that women are less self-assured than men—and that to succeed, confidence matters as much as competence”
Over the last year 145 general commissioning invitations were sent, not including those that were contacted for a conference or event, or special feature or project, such as International Woman’s Day or RegMedNet spotlights. 27 were sent to solely female contributors (often, I’ll email 1–2 people at a time, for example the 1st and corresponding authors from a paper), which demonstrated starkly that I was not doing a good job on commissioning equally.
Interesting, approximately 25% of men invited agreed to contribute. As a general statistic, this is the success rate I would expect across all features, hence why I spend a lot of time commissioning for interesting content. However, 2/3 of women invited agreed to contribute. Due to a historical dominance on men in the scientific field, a high proportion of senior figures in academia and industry are men; very senior figures are often too busy to contribute, particularly to a publication such as RegMedNet that doesn’t have an impact factor and can’t be cited. The women contacted are likely to be less senior, so could both have more time to contribute and be keener, or have more of a need, to establish themselves as thought leaders.
Either way, this statistic demonstrates that women are keen to contribute and share their voice. Whether standing as a role model for other women and girls was a conscious desire through doing so, there is no doubt that it is easier to imagine yourself treading a path that is already well trod.
Maintaining the gender balance in the long term requires more concerted and sustained effort than I have so far put in. In future I will certainly aim to correct this balance by inviting more women to contribute or participate on RegMedNet. In addition to the goals for numbers of posts in a given feature, when planning future projects I will build in a goal addressing the proportion of articles from female authors. A more exacting analysis of RegMedNet’s coverage is required to achieve this with any accuracy, but going forward, I won’t assume that my concern will be seen in my actions.
In our post on ‘A day in the life of….Elaine Fuchs’, the illustrious and celebrated researcher, she commented that “women really make a very important part of the research community… it's critical to find good women colleagues who inspire each other. I think we're all better scientists because of it”. As a publication seeking to share, promote and educate on every aspect of this industry, it’s critical for us that we are truly representing every aspect. Whilst International Woman’s Day is a wonderful and worthy initiative, only considering the gender split for one day a year is useless to effect progress.
Luckily, there are a number of resources available to help worried editors such as myself. Journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato has developed a searchable database of Diverse Sources and 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit, has created a larger database called Request a Woman Scientist. There are also several lists that have been compiled by individuals to find female experts in microbiology, astronomy, physics, evolution, political science and neuroscience.