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I need no persuading that there is a deeply rooted sexism at the heart of much of modern life. A recent article by Jennifer Chubb and Gemma Derrick examines one small part of academic publishing, impact assessment for research projects, as measured by the funding councils, and look for examples of gender bias. They call it “impact a-gender”, and they find plenty of evidence to support their case. They claim that the achievements of female researchers are marginalised because research impact is measured along gender lines.

Their evidence is a series of interviews with academics. From these interviews, the authors claims that regardless of the interviewee’s gender, there are gendered orientations to impact.

To exemplify the gendered orientation, they find that “researchers … used terms such as ‘hard’ (masculine) or ‘soft’ (feminine) when talking about types of impact created. By ‘soft’, they give one quote: “Stuff that’s on a flaky edge – it’s very much about social engagement” (words of a male researcher). From this, they state the word “impact … is to some extent burdened with gendered connotations of ‘force’ and ‘weight’.”

They claim academics are pressured to “more masculine notions of academic productivity (for men) or towards soft notions of academic productivity i.e. public outreach (for women).

Once you have divided the academic research world into two camps, ‘male’ leading to impacts such as licensing or spin-outs, and female leading to public engagement. At this rate, public engagement becomes almost questionable – why bother, when you can do something male like create a spin-out from your research?

Their recommendation is that we should all “reflect on our scholarly norms of intellectual practice … and question our assumptions and prejudices.”

The authors find more evidence of gender stereotyping in attitudes to impact: males tend to identify a single “champion”, while females stress “team players”.

I haven’t read the full article from which this blog post is an extract, but the blog post does not constitute a valid survey. It is the result of around 170 interviews with academics and evaluators in medicine, health and life sciences, but no quantified results are given. Instead, the authors give just three quotations as the evidence on which they base their argument. The suggestion seems to be that evaluation of research praises licensing and spin-offs more than public engagement. I would like to see the figures for this conclusion; and of course, the impact of a piece of scientific research may be public engagement or spin-offs, depending on the type of research.

Such a study comes dangerously close to reinforcing the very bias it seeks to identify. The world of research can be divided along gender lines, but the implication here that all public engagement is seen as female (and soft, at that). Using this simplistic stereotypical male versus female science, it is easy to continue to imply that perhaps citing someone else’s paper is a gendered activity – looks rather male to me. Perhaps sole authorship of a paper becomes questionable because it is more masculine … perhaps writing a paper with large numbers of authors is more female. Perhaps we should drop the word “impact” as too male, and replace it by something like “collective understanding”.