The XX Question: Calling for a Level Playing Field in Science Writing

11 November 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

A friend recently told me that the line between my personal interests and what I do for a living is blurry, at best. I think, read and talk about science communication even when I’m off the clock. I love this stuff.

And it’s because I love science communication and science writing that I attended a panel at the recent ScienceWriters2013 meeting called The XX Question, which was focused on the challenges facing women in the science writing community.

The session was organized and moderated by Deborah Blum, a science writer’s science writer, and the panel consisted of an extremely talented group of science reporters, authors and bloggers: Christie Aschwanden, Maryn McKenna, Kathleen Raven, Florence Williams and Emily Willingham.

Blum began the session with a quick, data-driven presentation on the state of women in science journalism. I won’t recap the entire presentation, which was compiled by Kate Prengaman, but a few examples should suffice to make the point. For instance, the presentation noted that while the majority of students in graduate level science journalism courses are women, the majority of regular contributors at magazines such as Popular Science, Smithsonian and National Geographic are men. Similarly, the list of Royal Society Science Book Award finalists from 2003-2013 includes almost no women, and the vast majority of reporters recognized by the AAAS Kavli Newspaper and Magazine Awards are men. In short, science writing by men is far more likely to be published, recognized and awarded. (The full powerpoint presentation is available here.)

Each panelist spoke briefly about her experiences as a science reporter who happens to be a woman. Again, I won’t recap their remarks, but here’s an example that struck me: a magazine editor told Florence Williams that she could only profile women for the magazine if the women were good looking. That’s not only offensive, that’s bad journalism.

But the session’s primary focus was on charting a course forward to achieve a level playing field for women in science writing.

Blum outlined a “basic manifesto” that the panel had come up with in discussions leading up to the panel. And, as manifestos go, you could hardly ask for more reasonable demands:

  • Equal pay for equal work;
  • More gender equality in bylines and mastheads;
  • Equal recognition of award-worthy work;
  • A recognized code of conduct that includes freelancers;
  • A safe and clear process for reporting sexual harassment; and
  • Encouragement to talk frankly and directly.

Here’s the deal, folks: I care about science communication. I think it’s important. And if we want the science writing community to fulfill its potential, we need to have a community that welcomes, encourages and rewards science writers based solely on the quality of their work. We are clearly not there yet. This is not about creating artificial balance, it’s about doing the right thing.

So what, in practical terms, can you do about this? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself. Here are some of my answers (and I’ll take more suggestions in the comments).

For starters, treat people with respect and think about how your behavior may be viewed by others. That should be obvious, but it’s always worth repeating. Similarly, if you see or hear someone behaving like a jerk, call them on it. (This is not only the right thing to do, it’s also delightfully gratifying.)

Lastly, pay attention. No one likes to think that they’re biased, or that they work for a company that discriminates against women. But unconscious bias is a reality. If we want to make progress, we need to bring some critical thinking to bear on our own assumptions and decisions.

That might be a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Note: The panel session was filmed, but I have not yet been able to find it online. If and when I find a link, I'll include it here.


4 Responses to “The XX Question: Calling for a Level Playing Field in Science Writing”

  1. Deborah Blum Reply | Permalink

    You've done a great job here, Matt, in both reminding people of the important points raised in our XX session and of why they matter. Equality in all forms is about doing the right thing. And I hope we can come to appreciate that doing the right thing benefits all of us - it brings in intelligent people and newly diverse perspectives into the discussion so that we all end up smarter.

  2. Maryn Reply | Permalink

    Matt, thanks so much. A quick addition: To our knowledge the video is not yet up, as it will depend on the production schedule of the third-party folks who filmed for NASW. We'll get it up as soon as we can!

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