Reflections on Gender in our Society

Editor’s note: Following up on the recent report from the co-editors of Isis, Alix Hui and Matt Lavine, about the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on submissions from women, the HSS Newsletter invited them to talk about the meaning and implications of the data collected for the journal and the society more broadly. Future HSS President, Karen Rader, and the co-chairs of the HSS Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CoDI), Don Opitz and Myrna Perez Sheldon, joined them with their insights on this important issue.

What was the impetus for conducting this survey? Could you give us some of the back story?

Isis editors: We had known coming into the editorship in 2019 that we had an obligation to make sure that the Society’s publications, especially Isis, reflected the diversity of its membership. At the start, that endeavor took the form of working with CoDI, the Women’s Caucus, and the Executive Committee on planning how to do intake surveys that would let us collect data on gender, race, career status, and nationality in the best possible way. For us, that meant finding the best possible middle ground between techniques that yield easily computable data and those that would allow people submitting manuscripts to accurately self-define without having to fit their identities into pre-established categories. Given how complicated a process finding that path promised to be, we decided not to collect that data until the ITGR had a chance to weigh in, and until we’d received some feedback from Isis‘s June 2020 Open Conversations special section on the subject.

Isis had collected and shared data on the gender of authors submitting to the journal with the Women’s Caucus for many years before we took over as editors. We put this effort on hold when we took over, in part because it had relied on assignment of gender after the fact. Within a few weeks of the start of pandemic-related shutdowns at universities, however, there were already rumors circulating about the sudden and disproportionate increase in childcare and classroom teaching responsibilities falling on women. This problem wasn’t limited to the humanities, but it wasn’t long before we noticed our own submissions had begun to skew towards men. Alix reached out to a number of our peer journals and convened a discussion about whether this was idiosyncratic to us—it wasn’t—and what steps we should all take going forward. Part of our response was to see what we could learn, quantitatively, from the submissions we received in the months following the shutdown.

CoDI: The earlier (2020) Isis report, to which the latest report was a follow-up, exposed a gender differential in article submission during the initial months of the pandemic. It was discussed among the plenary “Futures” panels of the HSS Virtual Forum last October. Various panelists and attendees affirmed anecdotally their sense that the pandemic indeed disproportionately affected women scholars as well as scholars of the “Global South,” independent scholars, and early-career scholars. These latter groups already tend to experience less access to resources and therefore have felt more acutely the impact of archive and library closures.

It is also worth noting that shortly after the release of the follow-up report, Nature ran an editorial that discussed the gender patterns across scientific fields more broadly, and that the trends observed therein seem consistent with what we observed with Isis.

Was your survey looking at the gender of the authorship of submissions, or also at the way in which gender itself was a topic of papers in Isis, or both separately.

Isis editors: These are two separate issues for us, although it’s female scholars who do the greater share of work on female historical actors, so they’re not unrelated. In fact, that goes directly to why having a representative author pool is essential to keeping Isis relevant to our field. The work that historians do isn’t determined by their personal experiences, but it is shaped by it. For us, staying current with our field’s notoriously difficult-to-define boundaries means doing what we can to nurture and promote scholarship that considers the widest possible range of actors, places, institutions, and forms of scientific knowledge. In “normal” times—that is, the first nine months of our editorship before March 2020—that meant doing things like encouraging submissions from as wide a variety of scholars as we could, and making clear to as many people as we could the ecumenical approach we brought to the question of what an Isis article is. But that’s also why we understood the gender skew after shutdowns began as such a threat, even though, on the whole, 2020 was a banner year for total manuscripts submitted.

Could you talk a little about what data you collected and what the numbers mean?

Isis editors: Because HSS had not yet settled on a demographic-collection policy, the need to confirm the general trend forced us to make the uncomfortable decision to arbitrarily assign gender to authors after the fact and without their input. This decision was not one we took lightly, or without regret. We recognize that this kind of act is a form of trans erasure, to say nothing of the possibility of outright error. What we found confirmed our suspicions in stark terms: our new submissions had gone from exact male/female parity in the first three months of 2020 to a 3:1 ratio of men to women in the second three months. We also saw that the responses from women to requests for article or book reviews after the shutdowns took place was disproportionately low.

Between us, we have remembered enough college statistics to know that our sample size is not large enough to let us draw mathematically unimpeachable conclusions. But our quantitative findings were confirmed by the individual comments we heard from would-be authors and reviewers. Everyone had new kinds of challenges, and we heard about them from a lot of the members of our community, but women especially frequently cited increased responsibilities for caring for their families. There doesn’t seem to be any room for doubt that the middle months of 2020 were simply lost to many women in our field in ways that they weren’t to men.

Going forward, what are plans for data collection?

CoDI: We have been advising both Isis and the Committee on Meetings and Programs on better practices in demographic data collection. Based on this advice the latter implemented a demographic survey that allows for self-description of identity characteristics as part of the proposal submission process. CoDI has also developed a set of recommendations for data collection and analysis by the Society (which was presented to the Council in June) and which we hope will offer further guidance on the implementation of demographic data collection measures, whether as part of member and meeting registration or journal submissions for starters. We look forward to participating in further discussions related to this subject.

Whether from the survey, or based on your anecdotal evidence or indeed your own observations, could you comment how gender issues change or color the overall picture on the impact of the pandemic on things such as child-care or personal health?

Isis editors: As we mentioned earlier, increased family-care responsibilities was the most frequently cited reason for declining to write reviews or contribute to special sections, and one we heard most often from women. And this is surely an underrepresentation; it’s hard to imagine that everyone for whom this was true mentioned it to us in precisely those terms.

Karen: My first leadership role in HSS was as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, back when I was just starting my first tenure-track job at Sarah Lawrence College, and I had small children. The fact that many decades later, despite concerted efforts and attention, we are still talking about how to make things like childcare at annual meetings truly work for members is discouraging, to say the least. But as with all things pandemic, COVID-19 has both made visible and sharpened existing inequalities and rifts in the fabric of our scholarly community. One of those is rifts that fall along gender lines—paraphrasing Faulkner, “the past isn’t even past” when it comes to gendered cultural practices, norms, and discourses around caregiving and health. So why would those issues not also affect who submits (and who does not) to our flagship journal?

But these observations are not unique to HSS or even to the history of science more widely, and it should go without saying: we cannot understand our gender issues in isolation from other intersectionalities such as race, sexuality, and class. In the 2021 expanded edition of her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor asks: “can the conditions created by institutional racism be transformed within the existing capitalism order?” I see this particular intersectional question as something every (neo)liberal educational institution—schools, universities, museums, libraries and archives, and yes, scholarly societies—must immediately reckon with. And that would not have happened if not for the new work-life boundary conditions of the pandemic and (especially in the US) the work of the Black Lives Matter movement. This imperative will continue to push us to build stronger HSS communities that openly struggle both with making immediate fixes in our organization and with longer-term more revolutionary projects like rethinking the possibilities for scholarly societies.

What is being done to promote more equal representation from scholars across the fields and indeed, Society-wide?

Isis editors: On the editorial and reviewing side, we’ve made a conscious effort to diversify our reviewer pool and the membership of our advisory board, without—we hope—asking too much of scholars upon whose time and energy many demands are already made. This is a practical consideration as much as an ideological one: Isis’s readership is broad, and the work we publish will be more relevant to that readership if the path through peer review is representative of the field as a whole. On the publication side, our focus has been on ensuring that our colleagues understand that we see no tension between our mandate to publish excellent scholarship in the history of science and an eclectic approach to the methods and topics that such scholarship might encompass.

Karen: Using existing mechanisms of formal governance, the Nominating Committee, co-chaired this year by Elaine Leong and Hannah Marcus, has been one group that has worked hard to follow processes that generate slates of candidates for Society Council and Executive Committee which better represent the broadening diversity of history of science as a field. CoDI, who have weighed in on this conversation, has been working to formulate a recommendation about demographic data collection for everything from meetings to publications, since that shapes how we understand who we are as a Society and whether or not members feel they can “show up” in HSS as their whole selves. Finally, some really important work is happening in various HSS scholarly spaces—such as at the 2020 Virtual Forum, where the HSS Graduate and Early Career Caucus (GECC) led a Teach-In on supporting international scholars in pandemic times and the Forum for the History of Human Sciences (FHHS) led an Open Discussion about how to dismantle white supremacism.

What do you hope to see and accomplish going forward?

Karen: Under President Jan Golinski’s leadership, we have begun a comprehensive Inclusive and Transparent Governance Review, known by the acronym “ITGR.” Supported and reviewed first by HSS’s elected leadership, namely the Executive Committee and Council, the ITGR will soon be turned over to volunteer subcommittees on key issues that need attention: elections and committee membership (ITGR1), amicus curiae statements and advocacy policy (ITGR3), communication practices and policies (including the use of social media) (ITGR4), and finally, our general practices of governance and oversight (ITGR5). As VP, I am committed to following through the ITGR as a member-driven process. That means creating the spaces for us to have the difficult conversations we need to have as a Society about what is working and what isn’t, for whom, and why—and then showing up and listening. If you’re interested, there is still time to get involved! Email me at

More from the July 2021 Newsletter