Male psych researchers forget women in their field

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When asked to name experts in their field, male psychology researchers are more likely to think of other men—no matter that most psychologists in and out of the academy are women.

This difference in memory accessibility could be a significant contributor to the gender citation gap, a phenomenon in which women researcher’s work is less likely than men’s to be cited in scientific papers, according to new research.

“These biases affect the ways in which we offer opportunities to different people.”

For their new paper, three University of Texas at Austin professors asked psychology researchers in R1 universities—those that support the highest level of research—to spontaneously recall both experts and rising stars in their field. They then provided the study participants with a list of names of both male and female researchers and asked which names they recognized.

After comparing those lists to each other and to a set of baselines, the research team found that psychology faculty recalled female researchers less quickly and less frequently than male researchers. This disparity was especially prominent among male researchers and people who received their PhD less recently, the researchers say.

More tellingly, male researchers were able to recognize the names of prominent women researchers, indicating that memory accessibility, not general awareness, is likely behind the gender citation gap. That gap has serious implications for women researchers’ careers, affecting promotion, tenure status, and prestige and resulting in inequitable career outcomes.

“These biases influence decisions such as who to cite in a paper, but they also affect other ways in which we raise people up and give them platforms—for example, when thinking about who to invite for a talk, who to nominate for fellowships and awards,” says Veronica Yan, one of the paper’s coauthors and an associate professor in UT’s educational psychology department. “These biases affect the ways in which we offer opportunities to different people.”

The paper’s authors note that while this paper explores the impact of unconscious bias, that shouldn’t be interpreted as discounting the impact of explicit or intentional bias. Instead, their research is an attempt to draw attention to less-recognized causes of the gender citation gap in the hope that awareness will bring change.

“If you don’t focus on all these unintentional processes, you can’t fix the overall problem,” says Marlone Henderson, a professor in UT’s psychology department and a coauthor of the research paper. “We want to focus on fixing this problem, and that means looking at all forms of bias and drawing attention to these memory issues as well as addressing explicit bias in the academy.”

While the male recollection bias indicated by the research is troubling, it was what the research revealed about women’s recollection that most surprised the researchers. When asked to list rising stars in their field, for example, women regularly overrepresented female researchers—an unexpected finding.

“They actually seem to show a bias towards recalling more women relative to the percentage of women that seem to be out there in our field at top universities,” says Henderson. “This is something we found surprising, and we suggest future research unpack that more.”

The researchers also found that the citation gap and underrepresentation of women in psychology may be lessening, as people who received their PhD more recently were more likely to recall and cite women. Yan says that although the baselines used in their study may be subject to gender biases, the results they saw suggest that things could be changing in the field.

Katherine Muenks, the paper’s third coauthor and an assistant professor in the educational psychology department, says researchers in all fields should be more aware of their citation practices, as repeatedly citing the same people can keep valuable work from being recognized.

“Many of us tend to cite the same papers over and over, or cite those papers that immediately come to mind,” she says. “However, we should be aware of the ways that these practices could limit the diversity of the people we are citing and could lead us to miss out on excellent and relevant work that may not always be immediately accessible.”

“I really do believe that psychologists are not only looking for scientific truth, but they’re trying to make the world a better place,” Henderson says. “I think, when you bring to their attention these kinds of problems and issues, they’re really motivated to do something about it.”

The research appears in American Psychologist.

Source: University of Texas at Austin