Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Women in Herpetology

Image result for What Are Little Boys Made Of?The nursery rhyme What Are Little Boys Made Of? from the 19th century, by an unknown author, is probably pretty familiar to most of us.

To me, this rhyme embodies the concept that men and women are often interested in very different things, and have been since childhood. Of course, this is often summarily untrue for any given person, but on average, are men more drawn to things that are considered dangerous, edgy, or “icky?”

More interesting to me, what are the repercussions for career choice of a sex difference in people’s attitudes? Studies have shown that from early childhood through adulthood, men tend to be more strongly drawn to careers in science than women, but how does sex influence specific interests within science? Within biology—the study of life—do men and women find different forms of life more appealing or interesting than others? Does the nursery rhyme play out in scientists’ choice of study organism—are those animals perceived as dangerous, edgy, or “icky” more attractive to male scientists than to females?

It certainly seems so. I am a female herpetologist who studies venomous snakes, and I have always been one of the few women in the room. I'm definitely not the first herpetologist to ponder this. In fact, the 2019 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists featured a symposium entitled "Professional Women in Herpetology: Lessons and Insights." This symposium was extremely well-attended, and the speakers tackled issues facing female herpetologists, from the past, today, and looking into the future.

Dr. Maureen Donnelly speaks to a big crowd in the 2019 JMIH Women in Herpetology Symposium.

At this symposium, I heard many stories from my fellow "Ladies Who Lizard" about discrimination, exclusion, sexual harassment, fighting back, joining forces, and more. I looked around me and thought "Ten years ago this symposium would not be as well attended or impactful." There were so many women conference attendees in 2019! Who are they all? Are they students or faculty? Are they doing herpetology research? Are they fulfilling the time-honored measurement of productivity in all scientific fields: publication of results?

I got to wondering whether we could actually quantify female participation in science by quantifying sex ratios in authorship according to study animal, to see if critters like snakes and crocodiles do in fact have more men working with them, and if so, to try to see whether this has been changing over the years.

I assembled an all-female team of HERpers (thanks eternally to Kirsten Hecht of University of Florida for coining this lovely term on Twitter in 2017) to tackle this project.

Some members of the Cal Poly Physiological Ecology of Reptiles Lab studying women in herpetology.
Katie Rock (center), junior Biology major and Women's and Gender Studies minor, is the project lead.

We presented these data in a poster at the 9th World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin, New Zealand in January 2020. As usual, we had way too much data to put onto a poster, so we are reporting more of it here.

All the data presented here are preliminary, to be followed up by official analysis and publication later in 2020. Once the paper is out, we will update this blog post with a link to it so you can read about our official findings.

Below we present preliminary data, reflections, and ruminations about two main issues:

1. Sex ratios of authors on articles about amphibians and reptiles. Authoring papers is one of the ways that scientific beans are counted when we apply for jobs or go up for tenure or pay raises. So, quantifying authorship is essential to looking at the sex gap facing herpetology in the past and today.

2. Sex ratios of conference attendees. We might expect that the sex ratio of conference attendees to be roughly on par with the sex ratios of authors. But what about student attendees? Does their sex ratio hint at the authorship ratios of the future?

OK, let’s dig in.

Author Sex Ratios in Herpetology

We are going to be coy about our exact methods for now, but the basic idea is that we amassed data sets of all authors publishing on herps and coded each author's name by sex* using an enormous database of first names that allows us to assign a certainty value for coded sex to each author's name in our databases. Importantly, this allowed us to (1) amass a huge data set of hundreds of thousands of authors and (2) exclude authors whose names had a low certainty of being a particular sex. Because our data set is so large, any excluded or miscoded authors will not have an impact on the trends observed.

*An important disclaimer is that the reference names dataset uses binary sex and we therefore assigned sex as male or female, even though sex is a spectrum ranging from male to female. Furthermore, our dataset does not attempt to assign gender to any individuals. These are limitations of our methodology that reflect the historic and current binary assignment of sex. 

First, we quantified the total number of papers on each taxon published in the current decade (2000-19). Note that for many of our analyses, we break the order Squamata into the (not necessarily monophyletic) suborders Serpentes (snakes), Lacertilia (lizards), and Amphisbaenia (amphisbaenians), because as scientists studying squamates we are particularly interested in these groups of animals.

Among articles on amphibians and reptiles published 2010-19 (N = 201,237), the most popular study organisms are Anura (frogs, toads, and their relatives) and Squamates (lizards, snakes, and their relatives).

Next, we looked at the sex ratio of authors on these groups from 2010-19. Here, we quantify authorship as the total authorship events.


Male authors dominate total authorship events on amphibians and reptiles from 2010-19. Sample sizes of male and female authors are listed at the ends of bars, and percentages in the center. Among amphibians, the order with the highest percentage of male authors is Gymnophiona; among reptiles, it is Crocodylia.

Next, we wondered whether authorship by women is currently higher than is has been historically. It turns out that these data are not nearly as easy to get as those for the current decade. This is because of a quirk of indexing that has us shaking our fists mightily at the library/editorial/indexing conventions of the past, where until recently, only the initial of the first name is included in the citations of the paper. This obviously makes it difficult to assign author sex! Here are some data on authorship over the past 30 years on studies of lizards and snakes.

Female authorship events on studies of lizards and snakes have risen dramatically over the past 30 years. In the 90’s, there were 4 male authors for every female author, in the 00’s this dropped to 3, and currently there are 2 males per female author. 

Our data set has a lot more to work with. For example, we can analyze whether there is a sex difference in first authors, last authors, in the times papers are cited, whether women authors are more likely to publish papers with other women authors, and so much more. Stay tuned for that later in 2020.


Attendee Sex Ratios at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

I started attending the annual meeting of our societies in 1997 as an undergraduate. Looking back, the sex ratio of the professionals back then was clearly male-skewed, as was the sex ratio of my science professors at UC Berkeley, and eventually Arizona State, where I got my PhD. But it seemed like the sex ratio of the students was much more balanced. Nowadays, that trend seems to hold, except that there seems to be at least a slightly higher proportion of women professionals than 20 years ago. I thought about it… could I get ahold of conference attendee data to actually quantify this?

Frankly, we were a bit shocked by our results above showing that the sex ratios in authorship on amphibians and reptiles are still so male-skewed. Could the sex ratio of students attending our annual conference tell us something about the future of herpetology?

So far I have only been able to get ahold of registration records for a few recent meetings. I am actively trying to get more data, but for now I can show you some data from one recent meeting.

The conference registration data sets proved even more challenging than the author data sets. That’s because registrants had the option of entering their position (many did not), and it was open-ended, so the answers were all over the place. For those who entered their position, we coded them as students or professionals, and then we also further divided the professionals into academic professors and “other professionals.” Also, these data include both herpetologists and ichthyologists because both attend this conference, and because registration records do not allow their delineation. Here's a link to my Tweet on what we found (while you're at it, follow me on Twitter!).


These data are eerily similar to the national trends we see in all areas of biology: Most biology undergraduate and graduate degrees are awarded to women, but as of 2017 women represented only 31% of Biology faculty, with even fewer in senior faculty positions.

I know that there have been a lot of studies on persistence of women in science that attempt to understand why we have more degrees awarded to female scientists but few of them end up in academic positions. I’m not going to go into those here, but suffice it to say that herpetology and ichthyology appear to be no different. We are itching to get our hands on data from earlier conferences so we can see if the sex ratios of students and professionals have changed! Fingers crossed.

I wanted to add in a quick, related note from a paper by Sardelis and Drew in PLoSOne in 2016 specifically regarding symposia at our annual herpetology conference. They found that (1) the number of female presenters in symposia has remained stagnant from 2005-2015, with male presenters outnumbering females about 4 to 1, and that (2) symposia with female organizers are more likely to include symposia with female presenters.

Sometimes it takes a unique point of view, or even just knowing that there is a problem, to do something about it.

We have been tweeting many of our preliminary results as we obtained them. The responses from the Twitterverse have been really interesting. Many people have been bemoaning the low representation of women in herpetology (“glass half empty”), while others have been applauding that the data show how rapidly things are changing (“glass half full”). While we think both responses are entirely appropriate, we’ll leave you with an anecdote that falls into the latter category.

At the 2017 Biology of the Snakes conference, we noticed that none of the invited speakers were women, and that a tiny fraction of the contributed oral presentations were by women. On the one hand, this reflects the demographics of studies on snakes: most of them are by men, and so naturally most speakers are men. On the other hand, as we have shown with our data above, women are not THAT poorly represented. Currently, about 30% of authors on snakes are women, so we would expect that about 30% of presenters would be women, too.

Fast forward to the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference, where the meeting organizers made darn sure that a full half of the invited speakers were women (including yours truly). Curiously, the contributed oral presentations shot up to ~ 30% women! Furthermore, there were dozens of women in attendance who were not presenting, and looking around the crowded venue it seemed that a good 30-40% of all attendees were women. Bravo to the organizers for facilitating a conference with speaker demographics that are representative of our field.

The female attendees of the 2019 Biology of the Pitvipers conference put on by the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Photo by Melissa Amarello.

So, the times they are indeed a'changing.

Thank you for reading, and please leave your comments and suggestions below!



"Strange Career," a 1947 comic about American herpetologist Grace Olive Wiley.
It is no longer quite so strange for women to be herpetologists.


5 comments:

Harry Greene said...

Wonderful post and superinteresting. A tiny correction--Serpentes and Amphisbaenia are not paraphyletic taxa, tho Lacertilia as typically portrayed is...

Hanna said...

What would happen to the results of your data if you were to also include women who had careers in other facets of herpetology that were not necessarily degreed academic researchers? This could include professional zookeepers, veterinarians, breeders, wildlife rehabilitators, animal control employees that specilaize in herps in these professions. I have met lots of women in these fields that have strong personal interests in this class of fauna and do not write papers or are surrounded by the hallowed walls of academia. Is their participation in the subject any less significant in terms of being female?

Hanna said...

I would like to cite an example to go with my above comment. Check out this article about a woman snake rescuer in India. Ironically, many of the snake rescuers in India turn out to be women. She is one of several who do this:
https://yourstory.com/herstory/2019/08/india-kochi-woman-snake-rescuer-wildlife.
And don't forget Thea Litschka-Koen (who is a Facebook friend of mine) who has been rescuing mambas in South Africa. The TV Program "Nature" did and episode on her.

ophidiophilia said...

Great comments, Hanna. Unfortunately I can't think of a way to quantify that. The only reason we can do this project is because of the author record that is available. Indeed, authorship by women academics is merely one measure of participation in a field, and does not come close to encompassing the full story!

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