Haslanger and Refereeing Procedures

Note: This post has been edited in response to Shelley’s comment.

There’s been a lot of lively discussion online lately regarding Sally Haslanger’s excellent paper on women and minorities in philosophy.  Here I’m going to focus on her discussion’s implications for editing and refereeing procedures.  (If you’d like a discussion of the importance of diversity in both faculty and students, go here.  If you’d like a discussion of gendered metaphors, styles, and behaviour in philosophy, go here. For general discussion and extracts from an interview with Haslanger, go here.) Haslanger draws on Virginia Valian‘s work on gender schemas, which we’ve often discussed on this blog.  Valian argues that the vast majority of us, whatever our conscious beliefs, subscribe to unconscious gender (and other) schemas that influence our judgments.  The experimental data she offers are very convincing and, even to me, surprising.  Haslanger suggests, very plausibly, that our schemas for philosopher and woman are likely to clash.  This may causes us, even if we have very explicit strong beliefs in favour gender/sex equality, to judge female philosophers more harshly than male philosophers.  The effects may be small, but (a) small effects can make a big difference in a very competitive situation; and (b) small effects accumulate and reinforce each other, and over the course of a career they can make a huge difference. This suggests to me that journal refereeing and editing should be anonymous to both referee and editor.  That way unconscious gender schemas will have no chance to influence judgments.  Nor will knowledge that the author is un-famous, or has a foreign name, or is from a non-prestigious institution.  Anonymous refereeing is currently fairly widely practiced in philosophy, although some top journals make anonymity an optional choice for the author.  Anonymous editing is rare. Why is anonymous editing important? Because at many top journals, editors reject 70-90% of papers without even sending them to be refereed. (Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that an individual editor’s attitude toward such things as promoting the work of unknowns can make a huge difference at this stage.) So this seems to me a no-brainer. We should all strive for anonymous refereeing and editing. It’s the best way to assure that biases, conscious or unconscious, do not play a role in decisions. My understanding is that this is the norm in the sciences. (I’d love to hear from scientist readers about whether this is true.)

In the discussion over at TAR, however, few agree with me on this. (1) Brian Weatherson, an editor, argues that he needs to know sex so that he can practice a helpful affirmative action in favour of women. (He also seems pretty confident that he doesn’t have unconscious biases based simply on knowledge of sex.) His thought, drawing on other claims of Sally’s, is that women may be more likely to employ e.g. a non-aggressive writing style, and this may unfairly disadvantage them. If he knows they are women, he can correct for any bias he may have against non-aggressive writing. My first thought was that this could be done by a final non-anonymous stage after the anonymous stages of refereeing. But then I thought: if you think non-aggressive writing is good, and you suspect you are biased against it, shouldn’t you be extra careful about your judgments regarding all non-aggressive writing, regardless of sex? (2) Baber argued (as others have in previous discussions) that anonymous-refereeing is on its way out due to posting of papers on the internet: the idea seems to be that we’ve all read them all already, so we know who they’re by. Maybe I’m just bad at keeping up with the literature, but this seems hugely overstated. And we’re especially unlikely to have read the work of unknown people, for whom anonymous refereeing is most important.

I think what most troubles me about all this resistance to anonymous refereeing is that everyone seems so sure that they’ve overcome their own biases. The whole point of Valian’s work is that our conscious beliefs don’t tell us whether we’ve done this. I’ve spent a lot of my career on feminism, and I don’t assume I’ve overcome even my gender/sex biases. (And one interpretation of the tests JJ referred us to is that I haven’t, as I note in my comments there.) No scientist would dream of saying “I don’t need to do [so-called] double-blind experiments– I know I am free of interpretation biases”. Why do philosophers make and accept these claims of bias-freedom so easily?