Using Initials to Hide Gender

Using Initials to Hide Gender


There is some evidence that women scientists use their first initials, rather than their first names, at a greater frequency than men do in their publications. It would not be surprising if this were also true in philosophy and some other non-science disciplines. Reasons for women using initials might include worries about sexism in non-fully-anonymized peer review, or concern about how papers written by women are not cited as much as ones written by men (see this and this). I don’t know of any studies on whether using initials rather than names helps in this regard, but people are welcome to share their experiences. (Note: this is not a call to reveal the genders of authors who publish under their initials, rather than under their first name.)

Against this background, I received the following query from a male, early-career philosopher:

I’ve been wondering whether or not I should publish under my full name. Admittedly, this seems a somewhat persnickety question – bear with me! My reason for thinking initials might be better is that my first name is determinately masculine—and I guess I thought that having another man’s name added to the various journal rosters (and conference lists, when I give talks) isn’t going to help with the problematic gender imbalance in the discipline. I am, of course, far from influential, but I figured that if more men did this, the imbalanced image of philosophy that one gets from reading conference listings and so on, might change for the better. Or is this flawed reasoning? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

The thinking, I believe, is that while using initials only—initially—changes just the appearance of the gender imbalance in philosophy, such a change in appearance might have—eventually—substantive positive effects. Thoughts on this?

(image: illustration from Alphabeasties by Sharon Werner and Sarah Forss )

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Eva Dadlez
Eva Dadlez
5 years ago

Have always tried to publish as E.M. Dadlez, on account of Forster and gender ambiguity. Everyone’s using initials sounds promising.Report

Michelle
Michelle
5 years ago

Students by and large assume that authors are male, even when the author’s first name is provided and is obviously feminine. (Example: “Martha Nussbaum develops his theory….”) Masculinity is taken as the default — individuals generally will assume that an author is male unless they are led to realize the author is female. So, I can only assume that widespread use of initials by men will make no difference to the perceived gender balance.Report

Cristin
Cristin
5 years ago

Just something to point out: I’m not aware of any studies to support this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a similar effect on citation rates for names that suggest the author is of a certain racial or ethnic background as well. Philosophy is not only a male dominated field, but a white male dominated field. Initializing the first name may not help in all these circumstances. I imagine that, to a certain degree, institutional affiliations can have a similar effect (i.e. a paper written by someone at an HBCU may get fewer citations compared to one written by someone at a comparable (to whatever degree these things can be comparable) majority white institution). And of course, this whole effect can have unusual side-effects for those of us who’s names don’t match gendered expectations. I may know someone who’s encountered such problems outside the sphere of publication…Report

Commenter
Commenter
5 years ago

J.K. Rowling and E.L. James have used this to great effect in non-academic publishing. I suspect, sadly, that they were able to sell more copies in this way. It makes perfect sense why a female academic would prefer to use her initials, given the implicit biases people have. But, it seems like the best way to erode these biases is for folks to read very good articles by obviously female authors. This won’t happen if the best female authors use initials. So, catch-22, as the kids say.Report

Paul Hammond
Paul Hammond
5 years ago

I think your correspondent’s reasoning might be mistaken. Admittedly, it’s hard to know what the the long-term marginal effects of something might be, but I could just as easily imagine that a man using using an initialized name could have the opposite effect. Using only initials could obscure the continuing lack of gender diversity and make people underestimate the scope of the problem. Imagine having a dispute with someone who claimed there wasn’t a major gender imbalance problem in philosophy. You pull out a conference program and say, ‘look, 9 out of 10 of these speakers are men.’ Your interlocutor says, ‘but look at all these initialized names. I have no way of knowing whether those are men or women, so I don’t accept your evidence.’

Some anecdotal evidence to support this possibility: when I was an undergraduate, I thought for about a week that Hilary Putnam must be a woman, since I’d never met a man named Hilary and my youthful, idealistic mind assumed that the world of philosophy was an egalitarian utopia.Report

Avi
Avi
5 years ago

@Michelle Yes, I had a student this last semester refer to Korsgaard with masculine pronouns in a discussion in which I and others had repeatedly used “she” and “her.” I remarked out loud: “Christine Korsgaard is a woman. Women can do philosophy, too.”Report

P.D. Magnus
5 years ago

Initials contribute to the invisibility of women.

Another anecdote illustrating the point: I recently wrote a paper which deals with, among other things, an article from Mind in the late 1880s by M.H. Towry. I strongly suspect that it was Mary Helen Towry. There was a published reply the next year by F. Franklin and C.L. Franklin which refers to that author as “Mr. Towry”, but I think they just assumed that Towry must be a man. They did so, even though they certainly realized that scholars could be women; C.L. was Christine Ladd Franklin.
I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to sort this out, but could not find any decisive evidence to confirm my suspicion.Report

AMF
AMF
5 years ago

This seems right – though I guess it might be advantageous for more male philosophers, and fewer female philosophers, to use initials? If there are fewer determinately masculine names, and more determinately feminine names, this might positively reinforce the thought that philosophy is for everyone.Report

Anon Female Grad Student
Anon Female Grad Student
5 years ago

Last year I had a paper accepted at the Central APA. I’m a 4th-year grad student, middling department, 4 middling publications in which I used my first initial, full surname in my authorship. The organizers of the conference would not–and I went back and forth arguing until I was concerned that I was making a nuisance of myself as women do–accept my paper with first initial, full surname. When I got there, I noticed that there were a few older guard women at the conference who had spent their whole careers using initials, and so there were exceptions to the APA’s bizarre “rule,” but there you have it. The APA organizers simply would not budge. [I will note, now that I’ve published this way and the tides have shifted, I fear it may have been better for me on the job market etc. had I not made this decision].Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
5 years ago

When I first found out that the L in L.A. Paul stood for Laurie, I actually went through a chain of reasoning about whether the author was male or female, in which I ultimately concluded, for base rate reasons, that L was more probably an older British man than that L was a woman.

The issue of publishing under initials is not quite a catch-22, since the benefit of using initials, in avoiding some of the immediate effects of bias, is to oneself, and the benefits of using a full and explicitly female name, in slowly eroding those biases by making females names more prevalent, is more diffuse and to a host of other people, such as students, future women in philosophy, etc.Report