Women and Science Blogging

Since Science Online 2011, a series of posts has pushed forward an important dialogue about women who write about science online. The initial impetus was the #scio11 session, Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name. The women who formed part of that panel – Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster, Maryn McKenna and Kathryn Clancy – have gone on to post and tweet about the panel.

From there more women and men began to discuss the role of gender online (see Kate Clancy’s ongoing round up), with a focus on the obstacles and problems that women face when they blog about science, the disparity in the numbers and prominence of male vs. female science bloggers, and how women can do much more than they already have with science online.

Science Online 2011 and Onwards

I want to highlight some of the great points these women have made. Then I’ll add a couple points of my own at the end. I’ve done some very light edits and cuts to the excerpts I’ve selected from each woman’s writing, but for the most part, it’s just the same as the original.

I will start with Kate Clancy, writing at Context and Variation, and her post Even When We Want Something, We Need to Hide It

This post rounded up the major points made at the Science Online panel, and kicked off the discussion on other blogs.

The perils women sciencebloggers face are not that different than those we face in the real world… though the exposure of the internet can occasionally make it less safe. And the risks that women avoid out in the world, are not unlike those we avoid in the blogosphere…

There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot… We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.

We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.

We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men… Even when we want something, we often feel we need to hide it.

Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.

The risk-aversion women bloggers display only hurts us. If we continue to be risk-averse women will never occupy positions where they can influence the community of bloggers — we need to take on editorships, we need to manage networks, run carnivals, so that we can then involve and promote more women. The blogosphere, like academia, is not a pure meritocracy…

At the end of the day, being female is a risk factor for unwanted attention if you choose to put yourself out there in any aspect of your life, from your job to your blog. But a risk factor is not the same thing as a foregone conclusion. We can choose not to engage and participate, not to take on positions of power (like, say researchblogging editorships) or attention (blogging on a network). But we’re holding ourselves, and women younger than us, back. We aren’t directing or shaping the debate. We aren’t holding people accountable when they ignore or forget issues relevant to women and other underrepresented groups.

We’re Just Getting Started

Christie Wilcox, writing at Observations of a Nerd, gave us the post I’ve Never Been Very Good at Hiding.

It opens with Christie mentioning how a male reader recently complemented on her “tits,” and finishes with grace.

Sexism is a hard thing for me to talk about. My generation likes to think we’re past it. Our great-grandmothers and grandmothers fought to secure women equal pay and the right to vote, and our mothers continued to fight through the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s to ensure that we don’t feel as excluded or put down as they did. That was their fight, their struggle, their blood, sweat and tears. They suffered so I don’t have to…

[But] if you look around at the current science blogosphere, you can’t help but think there’s something wrong. Despite the fact that over half of the attendees at Science Online were women, female bloggers make up a small portion of the high-profile blogging networks. As Jennifer Rohn noted last year, no major blogging network even comes close to a 50/50 male/female ratio. Perhaps it is in part the fault of female bloggers for being too meek, mannered and mild and not shamelessly self-promoting in every way they can – but I doubt it.

Why isn’t there a girl version of Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? Why is there no woman in the elite list of the most well known science bloggers? The excuse that there aren’t enough high-quality female science writers just doesn’t cut it anymore. They’re out there, and they have been for years. Incredible women like Sheril Kirshenbaum have been standing up and taking the full brunt of the internet’s misogyny with the utmost grace. We have to be honest with ourselves as a community. The problem isn’t that the women aren’t there. It’s that they aren’t being taken as seriously.

Science as Literature, Not Romance

Stephanie Zvan, on her blog Almost Diamonds, wrote Hidden Women, Hidden Writers.

She takes us deeper into why there is bias.

Around ScienceOnline2011, a number of people brought up examples of great writers to emulate. Those lists all started, “Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, (another male writer–Steve Silberman or David Dobbs or…well, you get the point).” Only after that point, if the list continues, do any female names appear. Rebecca frequently didn’t make those lists, despite being widely lauded as having published the single best piece of science writing of 2010 and having reached an audience that most writers could only dream of. She never came first.

For her skills, sure, I would love to be Rebecca Skloot. It would not keep me from staying hidden. If I want to be recognized, I have to aspire to be Carl or Ed.

This isn’t unique to science writers. It’s part of the reality of publishing as a woman. I get it writing about politics. Google sent ripples out from the Digital Book World conference yesterday when it came out that they were surprised romance was the top-selling genre of e-book. Of course it is. Romance is the top-selling genre of book, period, year-in and year-out. It’s just invisible, being women’s fiction, unless it’s written by a man. But then it’s literature, not romance.

Now, there is one way for a female science writer to gain immediate attention for a post. They can write for women or about women. They can write the equivalent of romance.

Look at the comment section of Christie’s post. Now look at the comments on any of her other ScienceOnline posts. Look at how many times each has been retweeted or otherwise promoted and by whom. This post about being a woman while blogging blows them all away in its first half day of publication, and it gets disproportionally promoted by men compared to her other posts. Look at the attention Kate’s post has received. It has a huge comment section and has been cross-posted to David Dobbs’ Wired blog.

Don’t get me wrong. Attention is good. Attention is wonderful. We’d just like to get the same kind of recognition when we write literature that we get when we write romance. In short, guys, we’re tired of lapsing into invisibility when we do the same things you do. That’s why we aspire to your positions, not Rebecca’s.

The Science of Technicolor Bikinis

Vivienne Raper, of Outdoor Science, writes Why Are Female Science Writers Invisible.

Topics matter, and are another way that gender bias works its way through what gets published and promoted.

I worry topics women tend to write about often don’t count as science writing. So – even if women succeed as writers – they can’t succeed as science writers.

Let me explain. There are many more female medical scientists than physicists – I don’t know why. If a female medical scientist writes about medical, evidence-based interventions in childbirth – that’s a health story. Despite it involving science, it counts as health. There’s no shortage of female health writers…

There’s another reason why women’s writing doesn’t look as much like ‘science writing’… Because most mainstream science and technology writing is aimed at guys, writing by guys for guys becomes what people expect good science writing to look like.

Don’t scientific advances can be gendered? Well, here’s an example – this wonderful shimmery material produced by scientists at the University of Cambridge. I’ve seen this stuff in action – it’s brilliant. It looks like silly putty, but it changes colour with temperature and as you move. My first thought was “gimme a swimsuit like this – I’d shimmer and ripple like a tropical fish”. I wanted to write an article about being able to pop into Topshop and buy a technicolour bikini.

Then I realised I couldn’t write for a science magazine about the joy of multicoloured swimsuits because the average reader is a bloke. I’d have to write about security features on plastic cards (yawn) or some other non-gendered activity.

The Importance of Voice

Emily Willingham, on The Biology Files, posts on Women Who Write about Science.

What do women do in the face of bias? Here is one answer. Cultivate their voice.

I don’t discount that people have blown me off throughout my life because I’m female. In fact, I know they have. They’ve also blown me off because I’m somewhat short, have a cherubic face, and speak with a long Texas drawl. But I’m always at least briefly confused about how to respond to such brushings away that are based on my sex. If I respond by following my instinct, which is to surge forward, push it, show what I can do and do well, ovaries be damned, then won’t I be perceived as a woman not acting quite womanly enough and get the cold shoulder as a result? If I don’t do that and instead put my head down and persevere, but quietly, what the hell good is that doing anyone, women, cherubics, short people, or Texans?

Thus, I’ve often chosen to be who I am, which is a woman with a blunt voice, a sharp mind, an expansive interest in science, and a way with words that I’ve been cultivating since 1972. If this somehow belies me as a woman, then I can live with that, because it doesn’t compromise me as a writer. Being female just is what it is, and it happened to me when I was conceived. I had no control over it. But being a writer and a scientist? That took work. That took ambition. That took years.

Lying in my wake are years of education and experience with both science and words and yes, some of the accouterments that often come with being a woman: a spouse, children, cooking dinner, driving a minivan, derailing from the tenure track. All of these aspects of my life percolate through my writing and my writing choices just as much as my thousands of hours at the books and at the bench. With them comes perspective, sometimes a unique perspective that occasionally transmits to the reader. What defines me–woman, mother, scientist, writer, autism parent, endocrinologist, penile and gonad researcher, herp-o-phile, Texan, brunette–has shaped me and will inevitably shape my words, my viewpoints, and what I write about. Any one of my characteristics might contribute something worthwhile to the scientific conversation.

Yes, my voice is a woman’s voice. But it speaks with an accent and years of baggage related to many factors other than my sex. What makes it a voice worth hearing is ultimately that it says something worth saying. For that reason, I’ll continue to cast aside any worries that by using that voice or promoting that voice, I’m not being “womanly” enough. And I’ll continue to listen to and promote the voices of others whose writing and perspective I admire. Oddly enough, many of them are women. I can’t imagine why that is.

Society, Risk Taking, and What Gets Emphasized

I wrote a comment on Vivienne’s post, and I present a modified version of it here. It’s my little riff on a lot of what I read today.

There’s a great deal of validity in this analysis – economics, gender roles, and time add up as really powerful social determinants.

I want to add that the risk taking involved is very different for men and women bloggers. Just writing online, using your name, posting an image of yourself – all these are risk-laden things for women to do, but I haven’t heard many men complain about them. Rather, taking risks for them is DM Ed Yong and seeing if he responds, or criticizing another blogger and see what happens (right now I’m thinking of the whole recent controversy over what Jesse Bering wrote and his critics – almost entirely men). So the risks involved, as well as the supports, are quite different. And of course those two things are linked.

And then you add in that great ideas like Vivienne’s to write about this wonderful shimmery new material and get it into a science arena are, at this point, almost non-starters, particularly in the traditional press. Some of Ed Yong’s most popular posts are related to sex and gender (e.g., the flatworms one). I don’t think a shimmery new material and swimsuits post would get quite as many re-tweets as some of Ed’s stuff, however. Ed’s piece would likely be seen as science, with some fun sex angle added, while Vivienne would be swimsuits, with some fun science/technology angle added. Those are two really different things.

And then looking at Kate Clancy’s summary post and that sense of social feedback, or even potential reactions. The post’s title is telling – “Even when we want something, we need to hide it.” Why?

That’s a question we need to ask ourselves more.

The Importance of Even a Little History

Let’s roll back six months. Last summer a number of new science blogging networks came into existence. Almost immediately the gender disparity in the number of these networks was pointed out; one reaction was to create a list of women in science blogging, which numbered 131 at last count.

A lot of discussion happened then, a lot of discussion has happened now. The trajectory between the two events has been less discussed. But it’s not as if much has changed. If anything it’s worse. While PLoS added another female blogger, Wired recently added another male blogger. That did not bring any uproar. The more recent Scientific American blog network looks to be even more male biased at present than the “older” ones – Jesse Bering, John Horgan, John Platt are among the featured names. Not one woman has a featured blog there. [See Bora’s comment below for some clarification, as the SA network has not officially launched – but SA does have a “Blogs” page.]

Women have put in a tremendous amount of effort in trying to break this mold. The present discussion has often been hopeful. But so was the past one. As one of my favorite quotes I learned in high school goes:

“When all is said and done, more is said than done.”

So What to Do?

One of the most concrete suggestions I’ve heard is for men writing online to be aware of their own biases in who they retweet, who they link to, how they comment (including David Dobbs telling some men to just “STFU“), and what they highlight with their own work. Good ideas, solid research, enjoyable writing – promote them wherever you find them. Go back and check your work for bias, reach out actively to women bloggers whose work you like, write a post imagining your audience is only women.

Women commenting have also discussed about taking greater risks and being more forward than they might normally be. Men do it all the time, without necessarily thinking about it. My sense, skewed though it may be, is that it’s been helpful for women to talk about how they think about things, how they react, how they write and also to realize how men writing online interact and think and react. Both at once – that seems key.

These are things that individuals can do. But they are not enough.

Women science bloggers have been right to complain about the topics that get promoted, which often feature a male bias. We should give topics that intersect with women and science the same glittery reception. Create the market, rather than following biases about what it might be.

Another issue, raised on occasion, is pay. This is likely to be a crucial issue as blogging moves further towards the center of journalism and media. If men are in the prominent spots, who do you think will take home the lion’s share of pay? Not the lioness, that’s for sure.

A more prominent presence of women on the networks. That’s key. That way women will reap the same rewards that come with everything that a network can offer. At the same time, these networks will have to be proactive in promoting topics, risk taking, links and commenting that generate appeal and support across the board.


As I was working on this post, my 10 year old son came up to me and saw Jennifer Rohn’s chart on Nature. He asked what it was, and I explained it to him – the pink represented the number of women and blue the number of men. He immediately saw that there were a lot less women. Then I pointed out I was on PLoS.

“Bad!” He declared. “Bad. Bad. Bad.”

“Yeah. I’m trying to do a little something about it.”

He paused, looked at the screen again, then turned and walked away.

Heading towards his bedroom, he chanted “Equality, equality, equality.”

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12 Responses to Women and Science Blogging

  1. KBHC says:

    I think I would like your son very much :). Daniel, this is a really thoughtful set of references, and your own thinking.

    On the network thing: some networks seem to attract more trolls, and from what I’m hearing behind the scenes, some women are avoiding networks (and thus losing out on that audience and built-in promotion) for this reason. What can networks do to better support women and people from other underrepresented groups who might attract more trolls? If there were guarantees that the network admins were thinking about these issues maybe more women would be willing to take what, as you have said, is a greater relative risk.

    Anyway, lots of food for thought when I should be prepping for class!

  2. Coturnix says:

    Scientific American blog network has not launched yet. The seven existing blogs on the site have been there for years, and some of them will get incorporated into the network when it launches. I am not at liberty to break our own embargoes, but the network lineup has been in the works since September and was finalized in December. I cannot tell you the size, numbers, names, ages, sex-ratio etc. until the launch. So I hope nobody thinks that the existing SciAm blogs are the network – they are not- and I hope nobody makes comments on its diversity etc. before it launches so people can actually see for themselves.

    • daniel.lende says:

      Thanks for that clarification, Bora. Much appreciated. I’ll add a note into the post.

      • Coturnix says:

        No problem, you are welcome.

        SA has been using the blogging platform for quick, brief pieces for something like 10 years. Blog is just a software that is easy to use, so why not use it. Mostly done by SA editors, writers and correspondents.

        Observations is the official news blog, and you’ll see it is dominated by Katherine Harmon who is a writing machine putting Ed Yong to shame.

        Expeditions is the place to post dispatches from groups doing research out in the field – those posts are mostly written by women as well.

        Finally, see the Guest Blog posts since November 1st when I took over (that is the only SA blog I control right now) – feel free to calculate sex-ratio, etc, if you want – and note the regular two-per-week postings there by Mary Karmelek.

        Each of those blogs was started at a different time for a different reason and it was never considered to be a blogging network – just use of easy blogging software for a variety of purposes as the need arose over the years.

        The real network is coming soon 😉

  3. Scicurious says:

    Thanks so much for posting on this!

  4. I like that son of yours. Thanks for this post and expanding the context and the road map to change.

  5. Joanne says:

    You are raising a fine young gentleman. Thank you for the round-up!

  6. Alan Butterfat says:

    Science is serious business, for those that think serious business is the only possible worthwhile human activity. There are some of those. My perspective is warped by having completed a fine career in software, which meant I had to explain my employers’ exotic, if not exactly logically coherent, fantasies to a simple machine. My day to day transactions with serious people did not lead me to admire them. To me, it seems people who lack any sense of humor like to think their bleak demeanor displays their fine, no-nonsense mind. I often feel it displays their marginal grasp of reality. Nothing is as simple as a grouchy moron demands everything must be. Think Jared. The pecking order in the chicken coop is only important to a few of the chickens, perhaps the brightest, perhaps not. The rest of us smile inwardly and realize they are honestly doing their best. It just ain’t much, at any level. The possession of a penis or a vagina is a popular, or at least common, topic. The finest mind I ever listened and spoke to was a woman. She spoke of teaching people to ask for things they could use from a computer. The Navy named a ship after her. Not the nurse, the only other dickless Navy ship. Popular history speaks as if the ancient computer nerds were all brilliant. Some had their moments, but, some never had any clue, whatsoever. Many have left staff meetings thinking suicide was an attractive option. You are not alone. Our literature strips us of our humanity and wraps us in noble looking papier mache. The loud fools are just loud fools. They impress themselves and their competition, but, the rest of us may hope to accomplish something, not just sit in the big chair. I would like to submit that gender is a fun topic, but, the things that are holding down humanity are not sexual organs, they are simply the inertia of a huge mass trying to stay afloat in heavy seas. I have sat in a big chair. It was no joy. I enjoy being alive, but, that is my little mind being brave. I have no such fine thoughts about most of us. We are not capable of imagining there may be some reason things are alive in this Universe. Blaming dieties is common, but, not very helpful. Trolls are not the problem, they are a self actualized cesspool. The streets of the world were, and some still are, littered with horse shit. That does not negate their streetness. We are trying to understand what it may mean to be here, now. Some may think that is obvious. Perhaps it is, to them, but, so many people lie like a rug, it is difficult to say. It is not difficult to dream of better days. This is one. I have seen and fondled beautiful tits. In my dotage, my chest sags in its corduroy skin. Theoretically, I have tits. But, theories are not always useful. Neither am I, but, I still try, when my health allows such grand undertakings. Thank you for reading this. Now, get back to work. You may accomplish something, Alan said.

  7. A marvelous post, and thank you for collating all this. One small correction: I wasn’t actually on the panel; I was listed as a panelist but bowed out at the last minute to fill in an under-populated panel earlier in the day. I do however support and applaud everything my wish-they-had-been-co-panelists have had to say since the meeting!

  8. I’ve been following this thread on and off for several days – having been science blogging for six years, on the physical sciences no less (I’m a quantum chemist — and female). I appreciate the round-up here.

    I’ll throw something else into the mix and wonder if women scientists are less likely to have as much discretionary time as male scientists (bloggers or not). Women scientists are less likely to have stay at home spouses than are male scientists and this limits their availability. Tiny time crunches add up – I’m a bit less likely to blog, a bit less likely to spend time on self-promotion, etc.
    Which makes me wonder – is this the productivity puzzle in a slightly different guise? (An ancient blog post I wrote on this is here).

    I wish I had more time to weigh into all this, but I’m writing against deadline tonight….

  9. That discretionary time issue is a huge one for me.

    • Flavia says:

      […] pvaersive, latent anti-Microsoft sentiment”. It does not surprise me either. As I discussed here, bold statements drive traffic to writers’ and bloggers’ websites, and that’s […]

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