Isis Gender Report (January 1-June 30, 2021)

The addition of two children to the Isis office family, as well as the ongoing pandemic, has meant delays in projects like our semiannual gender report that are beyond the day-to-day obligations of running the journal. There is a certain irony there, as the professional effects of such work-life balance issues are exactly what this report is meant to quantify. Nevertheless, we apologize for the delay.

We began analyzing manuscript and book review submissions by gender in the summer of 2020, in response to anecdotal reports across academia pointing to precipitous declines in women scholars’ productivity caused by pandemic lockdowns, pivots to online teaching, increased responsibility for dependent care, and economic calamity. Our findings for the period from January to June of 2020 confirmed this. We then did similar analyses for the six-month periods immediately following (July-December 2020) and preceding (July-December 2019), giving us data covering our whole tenure as editors.

We remain, as before, deeply uncomfortable with our informal assignment of binary gender based on assumptions about gender presentation in person or on the internet. We recognize that any such method will contain inadvertent errors. We have developed, with help from the Editorial Manager support at the University of Chicago Press, a one-page survey for authors to document, should they wish to, various demographic categories such as gender, career status, geographic location, and so on. However, we await the Inclusive and Transparent Governance Review (ITGR) to complete its work before implementing it.

As before, we remind readers that we are not statisticians and Isis is a small journal. We receive about 120 new submissions in a typical year. Over the course of our five-year term, we will oversee the publication of approximately 80 articles. The sample size of submissions over a six-month period does not permit statistically rigorous conclusions. It may be that long-term trends will not be readily apparent from these six-month samples. In Tables 3 and 4, and their associated charts, we plot the data we’ve compiled for the last two years, from July 2019 to June 2021.

We had been heartened by the uptick in both submissions by women and submissions overall in the second half of 2020, hoping that this indicated that routine and stability had returned enough for scholars to return to their work. We were therefore dismayed to see that the submission numbers and rates for the January to June 2021 period are close to exactly that of the first half of 2020, the height of pandemic-caused disruption. Only 36% of new manuscripts submitted were authored by women, although some submissions had multiple authors. 48% of revised and resubmitted manuscripts were authored by women, which is closer to parity. Manuscripts that are desk rejected continue to be overwhelmingly authored by men. 

Male authorsFemale authorsTotal authorsTotal manuscripts
Original submission39216058
Resubmission19163533
Total58379591

Table 1. Manuscript submissions for period January 1 – June 30, 2021 
Male authorsFemale authorsTotal authorsTotal manuscripts
Currently under review20103026
Desk rejected1331618
Rejected851312
Invited to revise and resubmit791614
Accepted (including pending revisions)9101920
Withdrawn1011
Total58379591

Table 2. Current Status on June 30, 2021 

We have now been collecting and analyzing gender data on manuscript submissions long enough that we can begin to identify possible trends. The oscillating total manuscript submissions suggests that there is a seasonality to submissions, something we already knew intuitively and anecdotally. From late July through the middle of September, the Isis office usually sees a surge of manuscript submissions as authors finish projects over the summer. The Utrecht office (2014-2019) warned us of a similar pattern. Still, it is troubling that what we had thought was a positive trend, increasing manuscript submissions overall and increasing equality between genders, did not last. As noted above, the submission numbers and ratios in the first half of 2021 returned to almost exactly those of the first half of 2020. We can see from the longer-term data that when submissions increase and the gender ratio gets closer to parity, the total increase in manuscript submissions is carried by increased submissions by women authors. We suspect that the flexibility of the late summer schedules of scholars of all genders that makes the submission rates in the second half of the calendar year so much higher. 

July-Dec 2019Jan-June 2020July-Dec 2020Jan-June 2021
Male authors48405039
Female authors30204121
Total manuscripts63517258

Table 3. Original manuscript submissions for period July 2019 – June 2021 

The longer-term data for revised and resubmitted manuscripts also shows a spike in the second half of 2020, but the decline in 2021 is not as severe and may be bound to some of the original submission rhythms. Although the percentage of resubmissions by women fell a bit, to the minority again, it is far better than the first six months of our tenure, the second half of 2019. We’ll consider this long-term data to be trending in the right direction. 


Chart 1. Original manuscript submissions for period July 2019 – June 2021 
July-Dec 2019Jan-June 2020July-Dec 2020Jan-June 2021
Male authors9191919
Female authors592516
Total manuscripts13193633


Table 4. Resubmitted manuscripts for period July 2019 – June 2021 
Chart 2. Resubmitted manuscripts for period July 2019 – June 2021 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have struggled to find manuscript reviewers. Before the pandemic, we usually invited between two and four individuals in order to secure our minimum of two reviewers. In 2020, we found ourselves inviting as many as 10 reviewers. Like many other journals, we also found that invitations to review increasingly went without response for several weeks before they were declined. The reasons for declining were the same cited in studies of declining scholarly productivity overall (and for female scholars especially): illness, dependent care responsibilities, the burdens of migrating to online teaching, and service obligations. This trend appears to be subsiding somewhat. In 2021 our reviewers have been willing to take on our requests at a rate closer to that of 2019.

We were curious about other the impact by gender on other forms of labor performed on behalf of the journal, so for this six-month period we also examined the data on scholars invited to review submitted manuscripts. In the period between January 1 and June 30 of 2021, we invited 244 individuals to review article manuscripts. Those invitations were nearly evenly divided by gender (54% male, 46% female). Of these invited reviewers, 47% declined. Invited reviewers decline our invitations for a variety of reasons, and do not always provide an explanation; the most frequently cited reason is simply a lack of time. For our counts, we included invited reviewers that never responded to our invitations. Of male reviewers invited, 47% declined to review an article manuscript. 53% of female reviewers declined.

We are unsure what to make of that finding, although we remain alert to the possibility that there are structural forces at work even in numbers that are roughly at parity. Gender distribution varies between subfields in the history of science, sometimes dramatically. As a result, the reviewer pools for certain manuscripts may be entirely from one gender, even when a large number of requests had to be made. This is not something we have consciously tried to avoid at the level of individual manuscripts, though we do make a concerted effort to include qualified early career scholars and individuals from underrepresented groups in our overall pool of invited reviewers. 

Male reviewersFemale reviewersTotal
Invited to review132112244
Declined invitation5461115

Table 5. Manuscript reviewers invited for period January 1 – June 30, 2021 

As before, we reviewed the gender distribution in our invited contributions. The bulk of invited contributions to the pages of Isis are in the form of book reviews. Between January and June of 2021, the Book Review Editor invited 185 female and 66 male scholars to review recently published works. Because of pandemic-related delays in both shipping books and receiving completed reviews, the book reviews submitted in this period were largely invited in the previous six months. In the first half of 2021, 51 reviews were authored by women and 32 by men. We understand these numbers to mean that our internal protocols for inviting book reviewers is sound. While we are satisfied with the gender distribution of authorship of book reviews eventually published in the pages of Isis, the fact that male scholars accept and complete book reviews at nearly twice the rate as female scholars tell us that women continue to be unable to accept invitations and submit finished material. 

Invited contributions also includes eloges, distinguished lectures, reports from the annual meeting, and special sections (Focus, Second Look, Open Conversations, Notes and Correspondences, and so on). In the special sections especially, we continue to insist that the contributors reflect the diversity of the HSS membership.

We present these nascent trends as suggestions, not statistically rigorous certainties. It may be that we are starting to see the delayed effects of archive lockdowns, or the accumulation of crises and anxieties of the last eighteen months. In the last year, we have made the rounds to conferences and workshops, attempting to facilitate and maintain discussions about diversity, to demystify the publication process, and to encourage submissions. We hope that this is being received in the encouraging spirit in which it was intended, rather than contributing to feelings of guilt and inadequacy—but if nothing else we are natives of this culture and we are aware that the latter is a possibility. We know that our friends and colleagues are feeling beleaguered; we feel some guilt ourselves about continually soliciting them for their work. Let us close with this thought: it’s okay to slow down. The trauma of these many months continues to ricochet through our bodies and communities. Take your time. Isis will be here when you’re ready to come back.