Women and SSRN

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.

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22 Responses

  1. Jason Mazzone says:

    A comment:

    (2) might explain less since SSRN started counting only downloads by people who have an account and log in. Bloggers linking to a paper might increase only uncounted downloads because blog readers who don’t otherwise use SSRN don’t want to create an account.

    And a question:

    By (3), do you mean women are also “sexist” in that they too prefer to download papers by men?

  2. Profesora says:

    The empirical portrait that you offer is even more alarming when you consider that law review editors often rely on SSRN rankings (or blogger’s touting of particular articles on SSRN)when trying to decide whether or not to slot a piece. SSRN and (male) blogger’s preferences become a proxy for quality when they are little more than a reflection of individual tastes and a preference for circulating work early (and often).

    I’m confident that a lot of the trends you identify for women’s representation on SSRN also apply to people of color.

  3. anon says:

    (3), do you mean women are also “sexist” in that they too prefer to download papers by men

    I’m not sure if you’re putting this forth as a ludicrous sounding proposition, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least (though, of course, like any unresearch proposition, it may not in fact be true). Women are hit with roughly the same messages about women and men as men are; it’s not surprising of they internalize them too. We’re mostly talking on a subconscious level, of course.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    It would be interesting to compare the % in the “most downloaded” list who are women to the % of women in a most-cited list of younger professors (who as you suggest are more gender-balanced than the group of scholars as a whole).

    Although I don’t know of recent figures for this, around 7 or 8 years ago, Brian Leiter did a list of most cited professors who had entered traching since 1992. It’s here:

    http://www.leiterrankings.com/faculty/2002faculty_impact_newprofs.shtml

    As I read the list, 6 of the top 50 are women, and the most cited woman was ranked #22 on the list. I wonder if that same imbalance exists today.

  5. I genuinely believe that the rise of legal blogs will alter any genuine disparity between men and women in regard to their influence (which SSRN downloads presumably reflect). When the means of production and distribution (self-publication) are in the hands of “the people” (bloggers) several things happen. First, you cut out the gate-keepers who are largely old white men. Second, people search for and download (or read and copy) based more on the degree to which an idea expressed is compelling and the manner in which it is expressed in well-said. That leaves out most academic articles, which any literate person must be constantly translating to herself as she reads. Third, there’s something about the internet — I haven’t yet figured out what it is precisely — that makes people ignore (or pay far less attention to) the MARKERS of quality and attend to the SUBSTANCE of the text — good, bad or in between. I notice on my own account that I pay less and less attention to the following when searching for material I need to improve my practice, enhance my understanding or support my contention: where the author went to law school; what law firm or law school the author is employed by; and, what gender the author is. There’s something so anti-elistist about the internet that I barely pause to look for these supposed signifiers of quality. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, but maybe SSRN downloads have more to do with a fading practice among a certain class of professionals who continue to look to fading signals of status rather than originality of thought and excellence in expression.

  6. Sonja Starr says:

    Quick response to Jason’s question: I certainly didn’t mean hypothesis (3) to refer only to male downloaders. Like Anon says, we are all subject to cultural influences that we internalize.

  7. Mike says:

    How about men gaming the system more than women? I have this vision of some automatic downloader constructed to build SSRN count for the perp’s own work. If that is possible, would men more than women figure that out and be willing to do it? Certainly, the downloads appear higher in the high tech areas, so has someone figured out how to do this?

  8. Sarah L. says:

    Mike, as it happens, a recent paper examined just that question. The authors found (with various caveats) that “females were somewhat less likely to engage in gaming” (p. 17).

  9. I think an interesting study would be how many of the top SSRN folks have blogs. To the extent that having a blog increases downloads, and to the extent that most bloggers are men, one would expect more men to have more downloads. That probably doesn’t explain everything, but it explains some of it.

  10. Ken Burns says:

    I think the chances that anyone is ignoring it for “sexist” reasons is a bit thin. One easy way to test it is to check where the authors have names that are gender neutral, like “Sam,” “Pat” or “Chris” if there are any.

    my pet, largely untested theory is that we are not doing women (and minorities) any favors by suggesting that they could make a whole career out of things like “women’s studies.” SSRN is more likely to be used by working lawyers and even non-lawyer, i.e. practical people who need information they are actually going to use.

    Women can be every bit as hard nosed as men in every area. We shouldn’t be uniquely convincing them to segregate themselves from the practical world.

  11. A.W. says:

    Ah, crap. I am “Ken Burns” there. I posted in another thread as “Burns” on a goof and it remembered, and i didn’t notice.

    Mmm, need more caffine…

  12. I’m reminded of the old story about a chart of mammals with humans at the top. When a student asks “why are we are the top? the lion is more fierce; the tiger faster; the bear more robust (etc.).” The teacher responds, “because we made the chart.”

    I spent a lifetime measuring my accomplishments by male yard sticks (law school grad ’80): income (obsessed first by achieving six figures and then by the numeral that preceded the zeros); size of cases handled (from 5 to 9-figures); place of clients in the corporate world (mom ‘n pop to Fortune 500 to Fortune 50); and, of course, where in the AmLaw100 my law firm ranked.

    I will likely never completely abandon these measures of success and have only recently entered a profession — mediation and arbitration — that is as (white) male dominated as the law was when I first passed the bar.

    Still, men made the chart. If women made it, it would not be hierarchical but affiliative. Fortunately, we are only now realizing the benefits of collaboration and reciprocation in business, science and the arts.

    I continue to turn business relationships into friendships (sometimes at my economic disadvantage) while male colleagues continue to turn friendships into their own prospective economic advantage.

    I do not consider this a limitation. I consider it an advantage. In my world, WOMEN are at the top of the chart.

    One of the reasons I will (statistically) live longer than my male peers, for instance, is because I have a social network of intimates. Most men will follow their spouses to the grave within the year for lack of what women provide. Most women will turn to their women friends for support on their spouse’s passing, out living their them by years if not decades.

    Yes, the statistics on the retention and promotion of women in the private legal arena are dreadful. But young men are following older women away from AmLaw and toward more satisfying, well-rounded pursuits.

    On the whole, at the beginning of the 21st Century in America, I’d freely give men their extra 20 cents on my law practice dollar to be female rather than male. Hopefully, our young men are benefiting from the breakdown of male stereotypes and the (dare I say it) liberation of women to work as full economic partners, so that we can all move a little bit closer to one another in the benefits of being male and the benefits of being female as we proceed through this exciting new century.

    Thanks for raising the subject. I don’t like to talk much about sexism in the legal profession because the suggestion that we do not live in the meritocracy we wish we did unsettles too many people.

    At the end of every day, however, the question remains, “by whose yardstick” are we measuring the value of our lives.

  13. A.W. says:

    Vickie,

    This line struck me particularly as part of the problem:

    > Still, men made the chart. If women made it, it would not be hierarchical but affiliative. Fortunately, we are only now realizing the benefits of collaboration and reciprocation in business, science and the arts.

    so long as sexism like that infects women’s self-image, they will always trail behind men. Its that simple.

  14. A.W.

    What I’m saying is that men trail behind women. My own self-image is quite good, actually.

    Best, Vickie

  15. A.W. says:

    Its always sad when the stereotyped group accepts the stereotypes attached to itself as true. I mean I hate to make it that personal, but really that is what it is.

    Being most downloaded, being most cited, are a sign of influence. It is self-evident that if you publish you should want 1) people to read it, and 2) people to follow it. Otherwise, you reduce it to the status of vanity publishing, or publishing for the sake of having that on your resume.

    To pretend this doesn’t represent a devaluation of women’s scholarship is pure fantasy. The only rational question is whether it is a reflection of women’s scholarship or a reflection of sexism. I personally find it hard to believe that a person these days noticed very much whether a man or a woman wrote an article. The byline is such a small part of it, it is easy to forget gender, race, etc., when a person’s thoughts are reduced to pure text, presuming you could figure it out in the first place. So I think it is a matter of the quality of the output, but it is also circular, because I strongly suspect that the quality is harmed by women accepting stereotypes about themselves.

  16. Anon says:

    Has anyone mentioned the obvious possibility that female legal scholars are justifiably not as influential as male legal scholars — on average, that is? I know there are ideological reasons to insist that female scholars are automatically as good as male scholars, but that isn’t necessarily true. The female mean might be below the male mean for any number of reasons, including the possibility that the distribution of male scholarly talent is more varied — and hence there are more males at the top proportionally — and hence there are more males whose scholarship is worth downloading.

    Just speculation, of course, but so is everything else.

  17. Anon says:

    Has anyone mentioned the obvious possibility that female legal scholars are justifiably not as influential as male legal scholars — on average, that is? I know there are ideological reasons to insist that female scholars are automatically as good as male scholars, but that isn’t necessarily true. The female mean might be below the male mean for any number of reasons, including the possibility that the distribution of male scholarly talent is more varied — and hence there are more males at the top proportionally — and hence there are more males whose scholarship is worth downloading.

    Just speculation, of course, but so is everything else.

  18. Barbar says:

    The female mean might be below the male mean for any number of reasons, including the possibility that the distribution of male scholarly talent is more varied — and hence there are more males at the top proportionally — and hence there are more males whose scholarship is worth downloading.

    It seems impossible to explain to people that this appeal to “distributions” is a pseudo-explanation, not a genuine explanation.

    What is gained by answering the question “Why are there more men than women in the elite?” with “Because the distribution of men has a thicker tail”? Distributions are first and foremost *descriptions* of the world; saying that the male distribution has a thicker tail is *equivalent* to saying that there are more men than women in the elite. It does not *explain* why there are more men than women in the elite.

    Now it is true that if two groups have the same mean but different variances, the group with the higher variance will enjoy greater representation in the extremes. But all that means is that when you compare the tails, you don’t necessarily get the same answer you get when you compare the entire distribution. *All this talk about distributions still does not address the question of causality.*

  19. Jack says:

    I’ll bet male profs in the top 500 or so publish more papers than the typical elite female scholar. If the average downloads per paper were examined, I’ll bet the gap would diminish or disappear. More men, for a variety of cultural reasons, fair and otherwise, are highly prolific. Put another way, without having anyone specific in mind, it is possible to be in the top of SSRN by “cranking out crud.” Here’s a study suggesting many more men are in the highest productivity groups, but the gap is rapidly diminishing over time. http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/1a/05/fd.pdf (Sorry if this study is outdated or unrepresentative, but I got a job without having to learn how to do research.)

  20. Orin Kerr says:

    Jack,

    I had initially guessed that, too, so I looked at the SSRN rankings for downloads per paper when I read Sonja’s post. It turns out you get the same results (or rather, very similar results). I hoped to post the details, but SSRN seems to be down right now.

  21. JD says:

    If you look at the top 100, it’s pretty obviously dominated by members of four categories: (1) professors who write in economic and business-related subjects; (2) professors who write about gun issues; (3) professors who write about internet-related issues; and (4) prominent bloggers. For whatever reason, men overwhelmingly dominate these categories. Other than category (4), there is no particular reason that women can’t, if they wanted, become members of these categories.

  22. A.J. Sutter says:

    SSRN is down while the database is being upgraded, until 07:00 Monday 04/13 (Eastern time, I’d guess).

    Cheers to Barbar for his/her statistical point. But I’m not sure I understand Vickie’s 04/09 21:53 distinction between SSRN and the Internet. I usually download stuff from SSRN based on the abstract (substance), not on academic affiliations or other markers of quality. Obviuously, when I get familiar with someone’s work, I may download — or avoid — based on my experience reading that person’s work. It’s not a whole lot different with blogs, though I do consider the “about me” pages when I first encouter the blog, as well as the quality of comments. In that sense, the markers of quality are no less important when reading a blog.