Women and SSRN
posted by Sonja Starr
A few weeks ago, out of idle curiosity, I clicked on the SSRN “Top Law Authors” list . The list ranks authors by “total new downloads” of all of their pieces. I was surprised, in one respect, by what I saw. How many women would you expect to find in the top 50?
If you said “none,” you’re right. The highest-ranked woman was Lynn Stout at #58. I went on to look at the top 1000 authors on the list. SSRN lists 100 authors per page, so I just counted the women on each of the first 10 pages. The results: a total of five women in the top 100, 13 in the next 100, 8 in the third 100, 19 in the fourth 100, 30 in the fifth, 29 in the sixth, 24 in the seventh, 16 in the eighth, 33 in the ninth, and 28 in the tenth.
Note that this list has been updated since I did that count, so if you click on the link you’ll see somewhat different results (based on a glance, it seems that the top woman is now Roberta Romano at 59). Also, this was a pretty quick and unscientific review, and my coding method was no doubt error-prone. If I did not know the author, I went by first name, and only looked up the author if the first name was unfamiliar or in common use for both men and women. Still, I doubt that my count is very far off. And for what it’s worth, I just did a search to see if anybody had blogged on this subject before, and found this post on citations of women–see the comment by Jason Mazzone, who also looked at the top-100 list last August and found only five women then as well.
Women are also significantly underrepresented in “most cited” lists , so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. But I didn’t expect the disparity on SSRN to be quite so stark, especially on the “new downloads” lists. First, “most cited” lists heavily favor older authors because those authors have generally produced more total work to be cited—for instance, on the (all-male) top-ten list compiled by Brian Leiter, the top 5 range in age from 56 to 78, while two scholars in their 40s crack the next 5. Because women have become increasingly better represented in legal academia over time, lists favoring older authors should be more male-dominated than legal academia as a whole. In contrast, SSRN (especially the “new downloads” ranking) lacks this bias. If anything, it favors younger authors —those of us who, while not quite young enough to be “digital natives,” are at least highly assimilated immigrants in Internetland.
The significant increase in female representation after the first few pages suggests that the reason can’t be that women don’t post on SSRN—women may be underrepresented on SSRN (just as in legal academia generally), but not that underrepresented. So what’s the explanation? I can think of three possibilities:
(1) SSRN plays a bigger role in fields in which women are most underrepresented (especially business law and law and economics). Some evidence for this theory: four of the five women who did crack the top 100 at the time of my survey write in corporate law: Lynn Stout, Roberta Romano, Alma Cohen, Jennifer Hill. Nancy Levit (feminist theory, jurisprudence) is the exception. I do not have any figures on the relative representation of women in different fields of law or the relative levels of SSRN use in each field, but I would not be surprised if the numbers support this hypothesis.
(2) Women aren’t as comfortable with self-promotion. To get a paper downloaded a lot, it helps to have bloggers link to it, and to get that to happen, many authors will have to email the bloggers. Or they’ll have to self-promote in other ways—sending links to colleagues, for instance. I think it’s plausible that, culturally, women are on average more conditioned to resist self-promotion.
(3) Downloaders are sexist. Under this theory, all other things equal, potential downloaders who see a title or abstract and an author’s name are more likely to think the piece is worth downloading if the author’s name sounds male. Again, I have no direct evidence of this—it would be interesting to run an experiment to test it. (SSRN offers the option of emailing a digest of recent postings, right? I could imagine an experiment where half the digest subscribers received an abstract by Michael McFakeauthor and the other half by Michelle, to see which got more downloads.) But studies have repeatedly shown the persistence of (mostly unconscious, I assume) sex discrimination in a wide variety of professional situations. There’s no reason to assume legal academia is immune.
No idea how much each of these factors contribute—I welcome thoughts and alternative explanations.
A final question is whether this matters. As a commenter on the Volokh Conspiracy pointed out a few years ago , SSRN download rankings are not a great way to measure an author’s ultimate impact on scholarship. As noted above, they favor some fields over others, and an article might be much downloaded but little cited. Still, it seems intuitively obvious that SSRN downloads must at least be a contributing factor to an article’s ultimate impact—SSRN is one important way of getting ideas into circulation, faster than the publication process and reaching a somewhat different audience. Also, I’ve heard rumors that some law review editors look at SSRN downloads as a proxy for scholarly interest in the idea, which means that the download count might affect placement. And I imagine that authors’ careers could be helped, at least to some degree, by the increased exposure independent of its connection to the ultimate citation count. So I think if you care about improving gender balance in legal academia, the issue of representation on SSRN, while not the most important factor, is at least worth considering.