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Science Media Beset with Gender Gaps

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


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In the fall of 2005, I and a couple hundred other new students at Columbia University’s journalism school walked into a lecture hall for a series of welcome speeches, and two things happened that impressed me. I learned from one of the dean’s that somewhere around two-thirds of us were female. And Jill Abramson, who was then the managing editor of The New York Times and our keynote speaker, took a few moments out of her talk to address the women in room, telling them that could have lives and careers.

So much for His Girl Friday, I thought, and good riddance. But after a short stint as the Times’ first female executive editor, Abramson was curtly dismissed earlier this year, and journalism schools have turned out to be a “leaky pipeline”.

In the U.S., women continue to account for two-thirds of the enrollment in journalism and mass communications programs (at my alma mater, 71 percent of this year’s incoming class is female). And the pattern holds when you look at science writing and communications programs specifically, according to data collected for Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit, which took place in June at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit 2014 (Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The problem is that after graduation those women aren’t moving into the journalism workforce. According to a report from Women’s Media Center, which was cited at the MIT summit, during the last quarter of 2013, “64 percent of bylines and on-camera appearances went to men at the nation’s top 20 TV networks, newspapers, online news sites and wire services.” In terms of beats, “Men more frequently report on all news topics, but inequality is particularly pronounced in topics such as world politics, business and economics, technology and science.” The only areas where women “begin to approach parity” are health, entertainment, lifestyle and culture.

Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit 2014 (Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

A similar gender gap is evident in the annual science-writing anthology, Best American Science and Nature Writing, according to data collected for the Women in Science Writing Summit. In the past 14 years, only four women have served as guest editor, and in the past five years, only 19 percent of the selections have come from women. Thankfully, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the summit organizers, is the editor of this year’s edition and told the audience gathered at MIT that it would feature equal number of selections from women and men.

A couple other bright points emerged from the summit’s keynote report.  The National Association of Science Writers—of which I’m a member, and which provided funding for the conference—is 58 percent female. In addition, female staff editors equal or outnumber male staff editors (excluding editors-in-chief) at Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Popular Science (the opposite is true at National Geographic and Wired, although the former has a female EIC). But that’s about the extent of the good news.

Women in Science Writing Solutions Summit 2014 (Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The summit’s organizers commissioned a survey of members of the National Association of Science Writers, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Environmental Journalists, which drew 422 responses from journalists in the United States. Three-quarters of the respondents were female, 86 percent were white, 43 percent were freelancers and 71 percent held a master’s degree our higher. Their average age was about 46, they had average of just over 19 years of experience in the field, and their responses to the survey were worrisome. As my colleague Cristine Russell wrote in a synopsis for Columbia Journalism Review (where we’re both contributing editors):

More than half of the female respondents (54 percent) felt that overt or unconscious gender bias exists in science writing and journalism, compared to 44 percent of male respondents. And women reported far more negative gender-related professional encounters than men. They were much more likely to say they were “not taken seriously” or “not credited for their ideas” and that they had suffered missed career opportunities or delayed advancement. They were also far more likely to report flirtatious or sexual verbal or written remarks, as well as uninvited physical contact. More than 70 percent of men reported “none of the above,” compared to less than 20 percent of women respondents. One in three women reported being harassed in professional settings.

As Russell noted, “A science writers’ bill of rights [published in July], an online clearinghouse on sexual harassment, mentoring networks, updated codes of conduct, and efforts to reduce tokenism were among the practical strategies that attendees the conference recommended to help educate both science writers and employers about gender issues.” But the gender gap among science communicators was just one of the problems discussed at the summit. Another was the gender gap in media content.

According to a University of Nevada, Las Vegas analysis of 352 stories that appeared on the front page of The New York Times in January and February 2013, the paper’s reporters quoted 3.4 times as many male sources and female sources. In particular, the science articles published during that time quoted 21 men and only five women.

The problem is not just quantitative, however, but also qualitative, and many participants in the MIT summit glumly recalled the obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill that the Times published in early 2013. Despite her significant contributions to the field, the article began, “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.”

Following criticism from readers and the paper’s public editor, the reference to stroganoff was deleted, but gratuitous gender profiles of female scientists are all too common. One antidote, summit participants suggested, would be having more reporters abide by the seven-part Finkbeiner Test, according to which profiles of female scientists should not mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child-care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

As for getting more female sources into the news, one interesting suggestion that came out of the summit was to have searchable online databases for female scientists. Such a resource might look similar to EurekAlert!’s Science Sources, an online directory of public information officers from research institutions around the world, which allows users to filter searches by city, state or country.

However, a week later, I learned that two such databases already exist in Europe. I was at the First European Conference of Science Journalists, a daylong event held in conjunction with the 2014 Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen, Denmark. The program included a talk about the gender gap in the European media, which highlighted the two online directories.

Ingrid Wünning Tschol, senior vice president for health and science at the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany, talked about AcadmediaNet (available in English and German). The site—which is produced in cooperation with Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the German-language edition of Scientific American, and Nature, which is par tof the Nature Publishing Group that publishes Scientific American—is a catalogue of roughly 1,500 profiles of “highly qualified” female scientists (no self-nominations allowed) from 39 scientific organizations in 18 countries (although the bulk are from Germany or elsewhere in Europe). Unfortunately, according to Tschol, only 16 percent of AcademiaNet’s users are journalists; most are search committees from universities, research organizations and businesses that use the database with.

Next, Anita Frank Goth talked about a similar project that she manages: KVINFO’s Experts Database (available in Danish), which has 1,176 profiles of female experts across a variety of fields, not all of them scientific. Together with its partners in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, KVINFO has also developed similar Arabic databases for women in those countries.

Clearly, more journalists should make use of resources like AcademiaNet, KVINFO’s Experts Database and the Finkbeiner Test. There should also be more women producing content for TV networks, newspapers, online news sites and wire services, and more of that work should find it’s way into popular science writing anthologies. Indeed, the Women’s in Science Writing summit at MIT shone a light on not one gender gap that needs to be closed, but many. Thankfully, it also pointed out a number of possible solutions and I have no doubt that all of us who participated will keep pushing them forward. For those who missed it and want to help, summit recaps, Storifys and more are available online.

Another must read is, “Harassment in Science, Replicated,” an excellent article by Christie Aschwanden, one of the organizers of the MIT summit, which was published in The New York Times’ weekly Science Times section earlier this month.

Curtis Brainard About the Author: Curtis Brainard is the Blogs Editor at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @cbrainard.

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






Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. thescientist123 2:17 pm 08/22/2014

    There’s a reverse gender gap at The Scientist, a publication aimed at life-science researchers in academia and industry, which has an editorial staff that is almost exclusively female. And a glance at our content will show that we frequently publish articles by and about female scientists, both prominent and up-and-coming.
    Mary Beth Aberlin
    Editor-in-Chief
    The Scientist
    http://www.the-scientist.com

    Link to this
  2. 2. evelyn haskins 5:11 am 08/24/2014

    There is a problem here.

    And that is to that many women their “paid employment” is actually their second job. The first being homemaker and motherhood.

    This, of course, nowadays is their choice, but if you want to run two ‘jobs’ simultaneously, it is unlikely that you will reach the top in your “paid” profession.
    Or even, in most cases, is it desired to reach the ‘top’. Extra duties and responsibilities necessarily reduce time to spend with the kids! Or increase the cost of employing “home help” and “child care”.

    “Women’s Lib” has seriously let women down. It started as a move to say “Do not tell us we are not contributing to the family and the nation by being wives and mothers. We are doing a worthwhile and important job. We need legal recognition of this!” Many, many women had roles supporting their husband’s career, but this was not recognised as a ‘financial’ contribution to the family.

    But the movement got hijacked by the Lesbian and Career Women’s lobby, and our position as wives and mothers has been now so further downgraded as to not to be seen as a career at all!!

    Or in other words, IF a woman wants a ‘family’ and to look after her own children, then she must give time to that venture, which usually means either not working outside the home, or working at a lower salary level which afford her more time for the family.

    We do not exect men to ask for time off to attend to their second job, so why should women expect this?

    Link to this
  3. 3. JulianaClark 10:52 am 09/25/2014

    Yes We show that are not less intelligent then the others we have the capability to compete in the scientific market and very happy to see the percentage and participate ratio of woman.

    Link to this

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