There has recently been much commentary on the peer review received by female researchers regarding their manuscript about gender bias in academic biology (see here, here, and here). The resulting Twitter hashtag #addmaleauthorgate indicates the basis for the charge of sexism. Here is the relevant part of the peer review:
It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with (or at least obtain internal peer review from, but better yet as active co-authors), in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically based assumptions.
I am interested in an explanation of what was sexist about this suggestion. At a certain level of abstraction, the peer reviewer suggested that a manuscript on gender bias written solely by authors of one sex might be improved by having authors of another sex read or contribute to the manuscript in order to provide a different perspective.
The part of the peer review that is public did not suggest that the female authors consult male authors to improve the manuscript's writing or to improve the manuscript's statistics; the part of the peer review that is public did not suggest consultation with male authors on a manuscript that had nothing to do with sex. It would be sexist to suggest that persons of one sex consult persons of another sex to help with statistics or to help interpret results from a chemical reaction. But that did not happen here: the suggestion was only that members of one sex consult members of the other sex in the particular context of helping to improve the *interpretation of data* in a manuscript *about gender bias.*
Consider this hypothetical. The main professional organization in biology decides to conduct research and draft a statement on gender bias in biology. The team selected to perform this task includes only men. The peer reviewer from this episode suggests that including women on the team would help "serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically based assumptions." Is that sexism, too? If not, why not? If so, then when ‒ if ever ‒ is it not sexist to suggest that gender diversity might be beneficial?
1. I am not endorsing the peer review. I think that the peer review should have instead suggested having someone read the manuscript who would be expected to provide help thinking of and addressing alternate explanations; there is no reason to expect a man to necessarily provide such assistance.
2. The peer review mentioned particular sex differences as possible alternate explanations for the data. Maybe suggesting those alternate explanations reflects sexism, but I think that hypotheses should be characterized in terms such as substantiated or unsubstantiated instead of in terms such as sexist or inappropriate.
3. It is possible that the peer reviewer would not have suggested in an equivalent case that male authors consult female authors; that would be fairly characterized as sexism, but there is, as far as I know, no evidence of the result of this counterfactual; moreover, what the peer reviewer would have done in an equivalent case concerns only the sexism of the peer reviewer and not the sexism of the peer review.
4. I have no doubt that women in academia face bias in certain situations, and I can appreciate why this episode might be interpreted as additional evidence of gender bias. If the argument is that there is an asymmetry that makes it inappropriate to think about this episode in general terms, I can understand that position. But I would appreciate guidance about the nature and extent of this asymmetry.
5. Maybe writing a manuscript is an intimate endeavor, such that suggesting new coauthors is offensive in a way that suggesting new coauthors for a study by a professional organization is not. But that's an awfully nuanced position that would have been better articulated in an #addauthorgate hashtag.
6. Maybe the problem is that gender diversity works only or best in a large group. But that seems backwards, given that the expectation would be that a lone female student would have more of a positive influence in a class of 50 male students than in a class of 2 male students.
UPDATE (May 4, 2015)
Good response here by JJ, Ph.D to my hypothetical.