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The gender gap in cum laude distinctions becomes even more pronounced when dissertations undergo evaluation by all-male committees, the researchers found. And when the number of female members in the evaluation committees increases, the gender gap diminishes. Thijs Bol: ‘This finding indicates the potential role of homophily – male evaluators favouring male candidates - in evaluation outcomes and highlights the critical role of committee composition in mitigating gender biases.’

Resource allocation in academia is highly skewed. Acceptance rates at prestige journals are often below 10%, and the same holds true for important research grants. Peer evaluation is key to determining who receives these resources: scholars review each other’s work and determine who belongs to the highest rank and who does not. But peer evaluation is fraught with gender disparities across various settings. Studies show lower scores for women in journal peer reviews, grant proposal evaluations favoring men, and less favourable teaching evaluations for female academics.

A unique perspective

The new study tackles gender inequality by examining the association between gender and cum laude distinctions, offering a unique perspective on the very initiation of academic careers. Cum laude, a distinction bestowed upon only 5 percent of all dissertations, aims to separate the exceptional from the rest. This makes the awarding of cum laude distinctions one of the clearest manifestations of the search for excellence that permeates academia. 

The process is initiated by the main doctoral advisor, and a committee of scholars decides on the award, requiring unanimous agreement. External referees, provided by the doctoral advisor, must also concur for the dissertation to be recognised as among the top 5%. One notable aspect of the cum laude distinction is the absence of clear criteria, leaving the determination of excellence to the subjective interpretation of evaluators. This ambiguity makes it an ideal case for observing gender inequality in evaluations and exploring the impact of homophily.

Bol: ‘By shedding light on the association between gender and academic recognition at the very outset of careers, our study could hopefully prompt a reevaluation of current practices and help our academic community on the path to a more equitable and inclusive future.’