Who’s on an editorial board may seem like an esoteric statistic, but Topaz and Sen argue that it’s a proxy for women’s leadership in a field. Think of the editors as the gatekeepers of science: They direct journals’ peer-review process, the backbone of modern science. Editors call the shots on which papers get published in their journals—and this affects the ultimate direction of a field.
On an individual level, being asked to join an editorial board is an important career milestone for academics. “Editorial boards are a great chance for professional networking,” says Sen. “It’s important for tenure and promotion, and is seen as a prestigious honor.”
And Topaz and Sen’s research shows that women are being left out of these opportunities. In their analysis of 13,000 editorship positions on 435 math journals, they found that just under 9 percent of all math journal editorial positions are held by women. The median journal has an editorial board with 7.6 percent of editorships held by women, but one in ten journals have no female editors at all.
These numbers show that something is going on in the field of mathematics, but more research is necessary to understand what’s driving the disparity. One factor Topaz and Sen believe contributes to it is what they call the “brilliance effect”: the belief that natural brilliance or knack for a subject drives success, rather than hard work or persistence. And, sadly, women are less likely to be seen as brilliant. One recent study that analyzed reviews of professors on the site RateMyProfessors.com found that in fields where the words “brilliant” and “genius” were less likely to be attributed to women, women were less likely to reach upper levels of academia. “The implication is that to be a mathematician you have to be brilliant, and women are not brilliant,” says Topaz.
Even when women are brilliant, their accomplishments may be viewed differently by colleagues. Maria Emelianenko, a mathematician at George Mason University, told me about a colleague at another university who experienced this on her first day as an assistant professor. “When she arrived, she had a sign on her door that said ‘Mrs. Smith’—but the rest of the signs in the department all read ‘Dr. So-and-So.’ She’s on the same level as her other colleagues, but somehow they referred to her differently.”
Other times, female mathematicians’ accomplishments are chalked up to the “gender card.” Mathematician Sarah Brodsky says that after she was awarded the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship, there were colleagues who told her that she’d won the award only because she’s a woman. This kind of thinking—that women’s professional accomplishments are due to tokenism, not their abilities or hard work—plays a role in why women may be overlooked for leadership roles in their field, like editorial positions. “[Editorial boards] are looking for someone who is mature, has expertise, and can review articles and point toward directions that elucidate deficiencies in others’ work,” says Emelianenko. “They want to be assured that this person is very well-qualified. But this doubt—“this lady has published a lot and gotten some grants, but it’s because she’s a woman”—may hurt women.”