Earlier this year, we published a Correspondence that rightly took Nature to task for publishing too few female authors in our News and Views section (D. Conley and J. Stadmark Nature 488, 590; 2012). Specifically, in the period 2010–11, the proportions of women News and Views authors in life, physical and Earth sciences were 17%, 8% and 4%, respectively. The authors of the Correspondence had taken us to task in 2005 with a similar analysis for the authorship of our Insight overview articles, and gave us slight credit for having improved that position.

Our minds were further focused on the problem by a much-discussed paper published in September (C. A. Moss-Racusinet al.Proc.NatlAcad.Sci.USAhttp://doi.org/jkm;2012). The disturbing message of this blinded, randomized study was that US academics discriminated in hiring decisions and in salary against women who applied for a lab-manager position. Notably, female faculty members were as significantly discriminatory as males.

So here is a fuller litany of facts about Nature’s performance in this arena, based on internal surveys.

Of the 70 editors and reporters around the globe who commission, select, write or oversee Nature’s daily and weekly content, 38 (54%) are women. This proportion is reflected among team leaders. We feel confident that there is no discrimination in the recruitment and hiring practices of Nature and its publishers; the same applies to the writers whom we employ as freelancers.

Our performance as editors is much less balanced.

Of the 5,514 referees who assessed Nature’s submitted papers in 2011, 14% were women.

Of the 34 researchers profiled by journalists in 2011 and so far in 2012, 6 (18%) were women.

Of externally written Comment and World View articles published in 2011 and so far in 2012, 19% included a female author.

There are well-known external factors that will lead to some imbalance. The proportion of female researchers active in certain disciplines is low. The proportion of women active in the upper reaches of all disciplines is low. As a result, women in science will be asked to help to ensure a gender balance on committees and will therefore collectively experience greater pressure of that sort than men, leaving less time for writing and reviewing. One can speculate that there also may be a tendency for women to be less willing than men to push themselves forward, which may lead to editors being less aware of them. But it is certainly the case that women typically spend more time than men as homemakers and looking after children, further reducing the time available for journal contributions.

There is a need for every editor to ask themselves, ‘Who are the five women I could ask?’

However, we do not believe that these considerations can fully account for, or excuse, the imbalance in Nature’s pages. Nor do we believe that our own editors consciously discriminate against women.

That leaves the unconscious factors, and here we believe that there is work to do. We believe that in commissioning articles or in thinking about who is doing interesting or relevant work, for all of the social factors already mentioned, and possibly for psychological reasons too, men most readily come to editorial minds. The September paper speculated about an unconscious assumption that women are less competent than men. A moment’s reflection about past and present female colleagues should lead most researchers to correct any such assumption.

We therefore believe that there is a need for every editor to work through a conscious loop before proceeding with commissioning: to ask themselves, “Who are the five women I could ask?”

Under no circumstances will this ‘gender loop’ involve a requirement to fulfil a quota or to select anyone whom we do not know to be fully appropriate for the job, although we will set ourselves internal targets to help us to focus on the task. It is not yet clear just what difference this workflow loop will make. But it seems to us to be a step towards appropriately reflecting in our pages the contributions of women to science.