Problem of Gender and Citations Raised Again in New Research Study

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Virginia R Dominguez
Matthew Gutmann
Catherine Lutz

A December 11, 2013 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a new study in the journal Nature titled “Global Gender Disparities in Science.” The study, conducted collaboratively by researchers based at universities in Canada and the US, analyzed over 5,400,000 peer-reviewed articles published from 2008 to 2012, in journals around the world and covering all of the disciplines. They found that articles with women authors (whether sole authors or co-authors) are cited less frequently than those without, although there was greater gender parity in the South American and Eastern European journals and less in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Japan, among others.

These findings on gender disparities in citation are consistent with the main trend of research that has been done since the 1970s on the nature and extent of gender’s impact on the production of knowledge and the evaluation of scholars. That research has uncovered several trends, including a continuing difference in how women are recruited and retained in academic careers, in how their work is evaluated in the writing of letters of recommendation, and in the reading of CVs and academic writing. The research found some abatement over the years in differential evaluation of work by women and it sorted out some of the methodological challenges of accounting for the variety of other factors influencing the gendered outcomes observed in such things as citation rates. Overall, however, the complex story—including this latest massive study—remains disturbing.

Is this just depressing data about other disciplines and not about anthropology itself? We can imagine that the situation is very different in our field and the results more characteristic of other fields most associated with the physical sciences. Indeed, the CHE article states that, “the gender disparity in citations received was most pronounced in STEM fields like computer science, engineering, and mathematics.”

Many of us believe that our profession has improved, that we fight sexism and injustice more generally on many fronts, not just as individuals but also institutionally in our departments and professional associations. We have had a wave of disciplinary and feminist critique (eg, Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon, Women Writing Culture/Culture Writing Women, 1995), and we seem to find proof of our change for the better in the number of women in the discipline (the AAA membership is now 64% female) and in senior positions. But is it? Are we as progressive as we might believe (Virginia R Dominguez, “Comfort Zones and Their Dangers: Who Are We? Qui sommes-nous?” in American Anthropologist 2012 [114.3])? What counts as evidence of gender equality in anthropology, and what represents gender inequality in our profession?

Surely it isn’t sheer percentage of women in a profession. Famously, there is the example of the feminization of human medicine over many decades in the Soviet Union and the far lower status of physicians there than in Western Europe and the US. Or consider the occupations and professions typically associated with women in the US—K-12 teachers, nurses and social workers—including their salaries and their status, and compare these measures to those for firefighters, police and business people who work in jobs requiring far less education but are male-dominated. Feminization of a profession does not automatically bring about an increase in prestige, influence, authority or status, and may even entail the opposite.

One key datum that might provide a temptation to see anthropology as an exception in the academy is found in the numerical dominance of women presidents of AAA in the past 15 years (with Don Brenneis and Alan Goodman the only men in this period). This could be read as evidence of the end of gender inequality in our profession. Yet could it instead be read as evidence of a rethinking of what it means to be (and to be elected) president of the AAA? Could the AAA presidency be viewed now as women’s work in the old school sense?

While women’s leadership of the AAA, of departments of anthropology, and in the classroom is important in creating a less chilly climate for women in our field, the Nature study of citation practices demands our attention because even a cursory look at our journals suggests that the situation has not improved much since the last study of citation and gender several decades ago found wide disparities (Catherine Lutz, “The Erasure of Women’s Writing in Sociocultural Anthropology” in American Ethnologist 1990 [17.4]). While a follow-up study is certainly needed, and while we wait for the Nature data to be published more fully and broken down by discipline and controlled for a variety of relevant explanatory factors, the data already and again raise the very important question of who gets read and valorized—and who must appear to get read and valorized.

This issue is not restricted to questions of gender. It should also be extended to race and other forms of distinction. Racialized minority scholars face similar, and in the case of women, compounded problems of undercitation and undervaluation of the varied kinds of work they do in the academy (Lynn Bolles, “Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology” in Transforming Anthropology 2013 [21.1]).

This is all-important because citations represent the way we build challenging conversations among ourselves, and they index whom we listen to and whom we ignore. Cited works tend to be those that end up on graduate syllabi, and thus are crucial in building intellectual lineages. And they are becoming more and more significant markers of the value of an academic life, now often used to compare candidates for hiring, promotion, tenure, prizes and awards, and in some cases for salary determinations. Finally, they are used as an element in measuring university quality, theoretically creating perverse incentives with regard to gender and race.

What can we do? We cannot expect gender bias in citations and anywhere else to magically disappear because of a general awareness of the phenomenon. Nonetheless, we need to raise our own and others’ awareness of the specificity of bias in citations and of the factors that go beyond simple, unconscious bias—such as the kinds of paradigms and work we value, the often unexamined categorization of work as more or less theoretical, and the kinds of networks that women and men are differentially invited into or embedded in. We need to have conversations with our students—in other words, we need to actively and widely teach against gender bias. Just as we should not accept papers or theses from our graduate students that do not cite scholars from the regions where they are doing research, so too we need to call attention to gender bias in citations in the work of ourselves, our students and our colleagues.

This is more than a matter of respect. It is a question of citing top scholarship in all our work, and explicitly recognizing that this process must include vigilance against bias of all kinds related to factors like gender, race, class and nationality. The lack of citation to women and other relevant scholars in the places we study shows a real problem in how we appreciate and value their work and skews the message we are communicating to our students when men, just as those based in the English-speaking world, are the ones that may pop most easily to mind and therefore must be the scholars most worth citing. Finally, it bears emphasis that we are all susceptible to the effects of gender templates, even if only some benefit from their use.

Institutionally, we can ask the AAA to take active steps to address gender bias in its journals. We must find ways to help editors, authors, reviewers and others to understand how pernicious if too often invisible gender bias is, and to develop conversations about possible ways to turn this around. Beth Simmons, an international relations scholar at Harvard, has suggested an “Index of Gender Bias in Citations” that would rate all the journals in her field and would encourage editors to check their authors’ reference lists for adequacy in citing the literature and, of course, thereby provoke substantive discussions about the diverse and important work that otherwise lies in shadow.

Virginia R Dominguez is acting executive director of International Forum for US Studies, Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, vice president of Antropologos sem fronteiras/Anthropologists without Borders, and past president of AAA.

Matthew Gutmann is professor of anthropology and a faculty fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His work has focused on issues of gender, politics and health, especially in Mexico, the United States, and most recently China.

Catherine Lutz is the Thomas J Watson, Jr Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Brown University. Her research has focused on the transformations of war, gender, photography and emotions. She is past president of the American Ethnological Society.

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  1. Celso Alvarez Cáccam
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    PS: My emphases in the cited paragraph didn’t show. They were: “challenging conversations among ourselves”, “building intellectual lineages”, “significant markers of the value of an academic life”, and “and in some cases for salary determinations”.

  2. Celso Alvarez Cáccam
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink


    This is a great article that argues convincingly against biases in research practices. It is a pleasure to read it, and it is hard to imagine reasons to disagree with its arguments, given the facts the text does show.

    However ;-) , I would in fact like to raise an issue, which can be found in this paragraph:

    “This is all-important because citations represent the way we build challenging conversations among ourselves, and they index whom we listen to and whom we ignore. Cited works tend to be those that end up on graduate syllabi, and thus are crucial in building intellectual lineages. And they are becoming more and more significant markers of the value of an academic life, now often used to compare candidates for hiring, promotion, tenure, prizes and awards, and in some cases for salary determinations. Finally, they are used as an element in measuring university quality, theoretically creating perverse incentives with regard to gender and race.” (my emphases).

    There are basically two conceptions of knowledge reflected there: knowledge as collaborative creation, and knowledge as production. The text itself uses this framing elsewhere: “knowledge production”. And that’s where emphasis on eliminating biases in the distribution of immaterial (and, then, material!) value of commodified knowledge, by itself, fails to address what I think is the core issue, which shows up increasingly more in critiques of knowledge production and distribution. I miss a general critique of this process and its circuitry.

    I suppose it could be argued that I choose to focus in this systemic issue because I am male and white ;-) . Well, the immaterial value attached (by the field) to my “production” is so minimal that it is safe to ask to please disregard the gender and race issue in this case ;-) . I am talking about something different, and about the opportunity to question the distribution of immaterial value itself. Citing and being cited for the sake of a more “equal” distribution (actually, creation) of this value — we perfectly know — results in powerful, inherently hierarchical alliances which are constitutive of the field. A more equitable distribution of value among knowledge “production” elites along gender and race lines does not question that logic. Younger students should be offered the opportunity to rethink and redo the logic of this market — for example, by our emphasizing the “challenging conversations among ourselves” as non-productive intellectual activity. It is hard to imagine how this could be fostered by professionals of teaching and research who have invested decades of time, effort and money of their own in securing their position in the (dwindling) labor market. But at least we have the experience of what should not be repeated if we want to imagine a different type of intellectual and scientific activity.

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