The biggest problem with ScienceOnline (and one of very, very few) is that there are too many interesting sessions happening at the same time. One of the ones I regret missing was “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name”. Luckily for me, Kate Clancy discussed the session and the discussion before and after the session on her blog.
I recommend her full post (and comments) highly for any woman operating in the public sphere, not just science bloggers. For now, I’d like to highlight a couple of the challenges that others have noted we face.
- 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 (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). 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.
- 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.
I pulled these points out because Christie Wilcox focuses on them in her follow-up post, “I’ve never been very good at hiding“. Again, read the whole post.
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.
I’m not so complacent. I shouldn’t have to hide the fact that I am a woman just to be seen as a brilliant scientist or a great writer. And I am young and bull-headed and perhaps just naive enough not to hide. You might notice my looks first, but I’ll be damned if you don’t hear my words, too.
Christie is issuing a challenge to those who would engage with her based on looks to just try to ignore her work. It’s a good challenge. It’s bold. She’s right that she’s damned good and very hard to ignore, but…but…
Having our work tucked neatly out of sight behind our bodies is hardly the only way women writers stay hidden. Talking about our bodies is hardly the only way to fail to engage with women. There is always the much simpler option of just…failing to engage.
Christie wants there to be female Ed Yongs and Carl Zimmers. Ed comments that she might also aspire to be the next Rebecca Skloot. While I appreciate that he’s bringing high-profile women science writers into the discussion, his comment misses the point.
Look at the mass of discussion that was generated 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.
(To clarify, women are a critical audience, and it’s important that they be well-served. I love Kate’s suggestion about developing an Old Girl’s Club. However, if we’re going to talk about any kind of equality, we should note that women already read men and take them seriously. Women see men. The reverse can’t always be said.)
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.
So if you want to help (I know that a great many of you do, and I appreciate that), it’s time to figure out how to incorporate women into your “serious” science writing work. Do you always go to the same one or two male science bloggers when you want to cite an explanation of something? Branch out. Keep a list of reference posts if necessary. Do you highlight a few female bloggers when they write about community or equality? Treat their science posts the same way. Do you think Rebecca is an amazing science writer whom we should aspire to emulate (and I know the answer to that one)? Say so. Repeatedly. First.
Engage with us. Argue with us when you think we’re wrong. Talk about us when you think we’re good. Go overboard in mentioning us occasionally, since nobody else is doing it. Work to mix us in to general conversations about writing. If you want us to be recognized as science writers, engage with our science writing.
Until you do, Christie can tell people to “bring it” as much as she likes. They’re still not stopping by.