Women and science writing

Women in science writing

The Women in Science Writing: Solutions Summit last weekend at MIT was aimed at seeking ways of rooting out bias against and sexual harassment of women science writers. Here’s the conference Web site, with a link to Maryn McKenna’s assiduous tweeting and Storifys of #SciWriSum14, plus another Storify by attendee Alberto Roca.

women in science writing logo

I expected considerable blogging about the meeting because there were 90 attendees, nearly all writers. But I haven’t been able to find much yet; still early days, I guess. Ed Bertschinger has a brief post at Women in Astronomy. Cris Russell has a more detailed report at CJR’s Observatory blog on science writing.

Russell notes an increase in women going into science writing in bad economic times, a time also when the upending of the publishing industry means fewer and fewer staff jobs. Among the suggested remedies for bias and sexual harassment: A science writers’ bill of rights, an online clearinghouse on sexual harassment, mentoring networks, updated codes of conduct, and efforts to reduce tokenism.

She also describes results from a survey of science writers in which respondents were self-selected. One of them surprised me quite a bit. Fifty-four perecent of the women respondents felt that overt or unconscious gender bias exists in science writing and journalism. That seems low to me. It’s true that overt bias is less than in olden times, but there’s still plenty around. Unconsious bias is pervasive, and because it’s unconscious it will be quite a challenge to eliminate.

Pervasive bias is, well, pervasive. It affects science writers and many others, and it certainly applies in science generally. Just last month I noted the increased inclusion of women in research but  the dearth of research on female lab animals. Earlier this year, Drug Monkey noted that while the sex ratio of NIH grantees had improved dramatically, it was still the case that there are always, always, more men on the list of successful applicants. Microbiologist Jonathan Eisen regularly rails against conference agendas top-heavy with male organizers and presenters at his blog Tree of Life.

At the MIT meeting, reports of sexual harassment were, not unexpectedly, more common than bias reports. More than 80 percent of the women respondents said they had been subjected to sexual comments, unwanted touching, and the like; fewer than 20 percent of the men did. One in three women encountered this bad behavior in professional contexts. That seems low to me too. Perhaps it means that these days potential harassers are laying off because they know they are inviting trouble–which not so long ago was not the case.

Russell also reported on statistics gathered from elsewhere. In a survey of major news organizations, women produced only 35 percent of tech and 38 percent of science stories, and–this surprised me–health stories were produced about equally by men and women. Great news if health writing is no longer a female ghetto; that really is progress.

In anthologies of science writing, about 80 percent of contributions are by men and 70 percent of guest editors are men. Far more men than women are quoted as sources in stories. A lot of these findings are likely to involve that hard-to-get-rid of unconscious bias. But identifying the problem is the first step in getting rid of it. Consciously.

The state of women

Bias and sexual harassment are plenty burdensome for nearly all women, and in many parts of the world they suffer lots worse than distasteful dirty talk. They are sequestered and swathed head to foot. They are barred from education. They are beaten and tortured. They are slaughtered at birth, and raped and murdered as children and adults.

Here in the privileged West, we are living in the best time and place for women in the 200,000 years of our species’ existence. The best so far, if still imperfect.

Good to keep in mind, our great good fortune in being here and now and having the tools to do even better. But it does give us a different set of barriers to beat. Also, it’s not clear that losing desirable assignments and promotions and undergoing sexual harassment are bigger problems for women science writers than for women in other lines of work.

Obviously consciousness-raising within a group is key to fixing the problem, although maybe the second order of business is to get beyond preaching to the converted. How to reach the folks who need to have their heads banged together because they can make the bias-changing decisions? It might make sense to collaborate with other professional groups to brainstorm solutions.

Scicurious revealed!

I have several times cited posts by Scicurious here at On Science Blogs. I especially admire her deconstructions of neuroscience research. Nobody does a better job of science blogging, and that’s not just my opinion. She’s won lots of awards.

But last year Scicurious moved out of the shadows of pseudonymousness and stood revealed as: Bethany Brookshire. I was going to say that she switched careers, but what she really did was let go of one of her careers–bench scientist–in order to give full time to the one that made her a famous blogger: science writing.

scicurious psuedonymity-kitteh

She landed a terrific–paying!–job at Science News, where she writes for the magazine and still blogs as Scicurious once weekly.  She told me in an email: “the rest of the time I run the Eureka! Lab blog.  A blog that is devoted to getting more students interested and inspired in STEM (watch out for a post coming out early next week, it’s on squirrels and I’m so excited about it!). The Eureka! Lab blog has posts up to 5 times a week and is written at a 7th grade level.”

She also has a several-year perspective on science blogging and “tribes” in science writing: “[I]t’s funny how the science blogsphere has changed over time. Much ‘official’ science blogging is now just like science reporting, with outside comment, etc, and makes me wonder why on Earth bloggers still get paid less (though it should be noted, as a staff writer, I get what staff writers get. PHEW!).

“I’ve also noticed recently, as I’ve moved into the field, that science writing has its own ‘tribes,’ just like academic science. Who went to what journalism program, who’s written for what publication, etc. I realized that I’m part of the ‘blogging’ tribe that’s been around since 2006 or so.”

Early this year, at her blog Neurotic Physiology, Brookshire posted on her decision to leave academia. A noteworthy post on the nature of failure, one that drew many comments–including some from Ed Yong relaying his experience with failure.

Comforting to realize that it’s possible to fail upward. Is that really failure?

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