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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Woman science bloggers discuss pros and cons of online exposure

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Blogging and other Web activities have allowed members of many marginalized communities to open previously locked media doors. But women still rely more on back channels and ask for less help than men do in the digital realm. This tendency and other issues of concern for women bloggers were discussed Sunday at the ScienceOnline2011 conference in Durham, N.C., primarily in a session called "Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name."


For instance, comments posted to The Intersection blog, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum (@Sheril_) and Chris Mooney (@ChrisMooney_), tend to come from men, Kirshenbaum said, but emails to the blog authors typically come from women or children.


"Culturally, as women, we are less likely to speak out or argue," Kirshenbaum said, adding that women tend to create communities, and mentor and co-market one another behind the scenes, rather than in more public or traditional forums.


Women do speak out more in some online spaces perhaps perceived as more "women-only." Anne Jefferson (@highlyanne), a hydrologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, hopes blogs can encourage more women to study geology and be used as long-distance mentoring tools. She noted that her posts at Highly Allochthonous elicit more comments from women than do posts by her male co-blogger. Kathryn Clancy (@KateClancy), a biological anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who blogs at Context and variation about her research on female reproductive physiology, says that nearly all of her commenters are women.


Experiences varied among attendees on whether blogging under a real name did indeed present perils. Miriam Goldstein (@oystersgarter), a doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and blogger at Deep-Sea News says she has never had a negative experience. But stories surfaced regarding inappropriate comments by male readers. And one attendee voiced concerns about being emailed by a reader who said he was near her campus and about to stop by her office. Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie), a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who blogs at Observations of Nerd, said she only received nasty comments when she blogged on the science of make-up—and the anger came from women. Tribalism takes many forms.


Clancy and Jefferson started out blogging pseudonymously to avoid judgment from academic peers: blogging can be seen as a waste of time and as work unworthy of consideration when an early career professor is evaluated for tenure. (Jason Priem, an information and library science doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and others are working on alt-metrics tools to measure blogging and social media practices in a way that could be incorporated into researchers' curriculum vitae.)


Melissa Lott (@mclott), an engineer who blogs at Global Energy Matters, said blogging represents a risk to her efforts to have male colleagues take her work seriously. She started an anonymous blog about her experiences training for triathlons to avoid being thought of as "the soft-skills chick who blogs."


Attendees debated the merits of neutralizing one's female identity and/or femininity when blogging. Hannah Waters (@culturingsci), who blogs about ecology, said she wanted to be appreciated for the quality for her work, not for being a woman blogger. Suzanne Zuska, a scientist, engineer and long-time blogger, however, advised the audience to welcome the attention to one's work any way it comes and then to "take that all the way to the bank."

The entire concept of a woman science blogger overturns various long-held assumptions about science and gender. Kirshenbaum urged the session audience to bring important science and health information to women readers even at old guard, mass-media "women's" magazines such as Redbook. "I am adamantly a believer that we have to reach beyond [conventional science news outlets]," she said. "Science is not addressed to women. It's written for men and marketed to men even if men at the magazines don't claim that it is."


A face-palm reaction rippled among the 20 or so mostly female attendees of the session when "Not exactly rocket science" blogger Ed Yong (@edyong209) said, "I suspect there is a bias in terms of what is pushed to me through Twitter." He explained that, although other male writers often ask him to retweet links to their latest blog posts, not a single such request has ever come from a woman writer. Women in the room immediately broke into laughter, and commented about the novelty and presumptuousness to them of such a practice. Said Yong, "The fact that people haven't done this speaks volumes."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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