Tag Archives: gender

The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science

door handles for anatomy building at UCLPic: male and female door handles at UCL’s Medwar building (old anatomy building)

The Guardian asked me what I thought about a paper published in PNAS last week on the causes of women’s under-representation in science. This was my response.

For a more detailed overview of the paper, head to Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib’s piece in Nature (and be sure to read the scepticism of the comments too). Or the paper is open access, you can read it for yourself from the link above. Zakaib’s introduction summarises the paper’s major point very neatly:

Goodbye glass ceiling; so long old-boys club. The metaphor that best describes the challenge facing women in science today is the invisible web. Its multiple strands — some social, some biological, some institutional — can make it significantly harder for female researchers to achieve as much, as fast, as their male counterparts.

The authors argue that the under-representation of women in areas of science is not so much due to direct discrimination when women apply for grants or new jobs/ submit a paper, but more a matter of women opting out of the career-race to care for children, follow a partner or look after older relatives. We should not read this as blaming women who simply cannot hack it in science, or for choosing home over a devotion to science. Such women as often highly devoted to their scientific work, and could well still flourish in research careers if only the structure of such jobs allowed. As the paper concludes, universities could offer more flexible career development policies (part-time contracts, for example).

In the Guardian piece I dubbed this an ‘institutional’ form of sexism. This was the headline, so it’s the one everyone’s gone with, and not everyone understood. This is probably my fault, for which I apologise. I was in some respects echoing ‘institutional racism‘, an idea we have been familiar with in the UK since the 1999 Macpherson Report and refers to a sort of unwitting prejudice or ignorance which leads to disadvantage, often on the part of organisational systems as much as individual attitudes. The phrase has its own problems (not least: ‘er… just call it racism’) and I’m not a huge fan of conflating race and gender discrimination. Still, I thought it might help capture a point here, especially as I also wanted to fold in some points Athene Donald pulled out of last year’s Athena Survey on how women saw and were prepared for promotion procedures.

I’m keen to stress that such a culture/ structure for scientific careers can also put many men off the field, and that many women succeed across science. Gender can be a ready tool with which to play ‘spot the lack of diversity’, but it can be a rather blunt one too and there are many other questions to ask here (Imran Khan puts this better than I can though see also his notes on last summer’s A-level results).

Why does science get away with this? Simply: it is incredibly competitive. This some surprises people used to hearing about the relative paucity of science graduates, but this recent piece from the Economist on the ‘glut’ of PhD students and post-docs may help give some clue as to why. Universities and other scientist-employers of scientists don’t need to go through the hassle of offering part-time posts (something that’d benefit science in so many more ways that simply helping women to develop careers) because they’ll easily fill the full-time ones.

Please note, this isn’t about asking less of our scientists. It is about building more flexible frameworks for movement through scientific careers. If anything, it’s about being ambitious enough to question the status quo; to think about how we could make science better. Personally, I don’t understand why people don’t question it more.

Studying the politics of online science

This ‘women science blogging revolution‘ has really been amazing to watch unfold. From Kate Clancy’s initial call to arms to Christie Wilcox’s forthright ‘Bring it‘ (as well as David Dobbs ‘Sister, you kicked some ass’ and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘But…’), and much, much more.

I thought I’d contribute by sharing a bit of recent empirical research about women, science and online media:

  • Mendick, H. and Moreau, M. (2010). Monitoring the presence and representation of  women in SET occupations in UK based online media. Bradford: The UKRC.

You can download the report and read it yourself, or here are my notes.


What they did

Mendick and Moreau considered the representation of women on eight ‘SET’ (science, engineering and technology) websites: New Scientist, Bad Science, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Neuroskeptic, Science: So What, Watt’s Up With That and RichardDawkins.net. They also monitored SET content across eight more general sites: the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter.

Yes, they did include Watt’s Up With That in a list of science sites. Personally, I think it gives an interesting bit of context and flavour to the study. It doesn’t legitimse the site. Remember, they are looking at gender, not truth claims. That said, I did think it was odd they didn’t reflect more on its slightly different status (if only because I think that’s interesting sociologically).

Additionally, they interviewed six ‘web authors’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8. See also Appendix 4), and carried out group interviews with 32 young ‘web users’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8-9. See also Appendix 5). The researchers note that they find any distinction between writers and users problematic with respects to online media, stressing a blurring of boundaries around such roles and explictly distancing themselves from the attitude to online science media taken by a report on Science the Media published by the UK government last year (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 4-6).


What they found

I’m going to focus on the results from their analysis of web content, as this post is already quite long and I want to leave space to also discuss their methodology. Do read the full report yourself if you are interested – it’s quite accessibly written.

Their results suggest online science informational content is male dominated in that far more men than women are present. On some websites, they found no SET women. All of the 14 people in SET identified on the sampled pages of the RichardDawkins.net website were men, and so were all 29 of those mentioned on the sampled pages of the Channel 4 website (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 11).

They found less hyperlinking of women’s than men’s names (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 7). Personally, I’d have really liked some detail as to how they came up with this, and what constituted ‘hyperlinking of women’s names’ precisely. It’s potentially an interesting finding, but I can’t quite get a grip on what they are saying.

They also note that when women did appear, they were often peripheral to the main story, or ‘subject to muting’ (i.e. seen but not heard). They also noted many instances where women were pictured but remain anonymous, as if there are used to illustrate a piece – for ‘ornamental’ purposes – and give the example of the wikipedia entry on scientists, which includes a picture a women as an example, but stress she is anonymous (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12).

Echoing findings of earlier research on science in the media (e.g. the Bimbo or Boffin paper), they noted that women, when represented, tended to be associated with ‘feminine’ attributes and activities, demonstrating empathy with children and animals, etc. They also noted a clustering in specific fields. For example, in the pages they’d sampled of the Guardian, they found seven mentions of women scientists compared with twenty-eight of men, and three of the these women were in a single article, about Jane Goodall (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12-13).

The women presented were often discussed in terms of appearance, personality, sexuality and personal circumstances, again echoing previous research. They also noted that women scientists, when present, tended to be younger than the men, and there was a striking lack of ethnic diversity (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 14).

There were also some interesting hints about women having a particularly hard time when it came to sceptical communities, women are more likely to be associated with dishonesty, or at least foolishness. This was both in the Bad Science end of this, and what might be seen as ‘pseudo-scepticism’ of Watts Up With That (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18).

One site they did seem to quite like was Science: So What (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 19).


What I thought

I’m going to be quite critical of this research. It’s not actively bad, it just seems to lack depth and precision. I suspect Mendick and Moreau were doing their best with low resources and an overly-broad brief. I also think that we are still feeling our way in terms of working out how to study online science media, and so can learn something from such a critique.

Problem number one: it’s a small study, and yet a ginormous topic. I’d much rather they had looked at less, but made more of it. At times I felt like I was reading a cursory glance at online science. Problem number two: the methodological script seemed a bit stuck in the print era. I felt the study lacked a feel for the variety of routes people take through online science. It lacked a sense of online science’s communities and cliques, its cultures and sub-cultures, its history and its people. It lacked context. Most of all, it lacked a sense of what I think sits at the center of online communication: the link.

It tries to look at too much, too quickly. We’re told that of the blog entries sampled from Bad Science, three out of four of the women mentioned were associated with ‘bad science’, compared to 12 out of 27 of the men . They follow up this a note that Goldacre has appeared on television critiquing Greenfield,­ a clip of which is on his site (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18). OK, but ‘bad’ needs unpacking here, as does the gendered nature of the area Goldacre takes aim at. As for Susan Greenfield, she is a very complex character when it comes to the politics of science and gender (one I’d say it is dangerous to treat representations of simplistically). Moreover, this is a very small sample, without much feel for the broader media context the Bad Science blog works within, including not only other platforms for Ben Goldacre’s voice but comment threads, forums and a whole community of other ‘bad science bloggers’ (and their relationships with each other). NB: I think there are interesting and important discussions to have about gender and sceptic communities, which is precisely why discussion of this needs to be done well.

I also got a bit annoyed at the analysis of the wikipedia entry on scientists (they note the image of a scientist is of a woman, but that she is anonymous). OK, it’s an example of a nameless woman, but the culture of anonymity around the idea of a scientist is important to remember here. There is a gender politics to this, but that needs to be brought out, as do the new ways in which cultures of the web may disrupt or change this politics (personally, I’d start quoting this fascinating statement on Holfordwatch whilst reaching for my copy of Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium).

In fact, I was surprised not to see issues of identifying gender within anon/ pseudonymous identities come up. To me, this flagged up a lack of attention on of forums that many of the sites they looked at contained. Indeed, the relative lack of attention the report played to conversations between people was, I thought, especially odd considering a key finding of one of the rare bits of research that has been done on young people and science online is that they go to the web to talk to each other, rather then to be fed content (admittedly, this study is a bit old, but I was surprised not to see it referenced).

The approach to twitter was, I thought, especially weak. It boiled down to a keyword search for Ada Lovelace, Susan Greenfield, Alice Roberts on one side, and Charles Babbage, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Winston on the other. I guess it could generate some data to then have a play with, but they don’t seem do anything with it, and I remain unconvinced that it’s the best first step anyway. Keywords just don’t capture twitter. Trending terms, maybe (maybe).

The report needed to reflect something of the routes people take through online science. Their use of focus groups does capture this up to a point, but it really was very small and, for me, called out to be supplemented with more ethnographic work. The hyperlink disrupts the basis for a traditional content analysis, news-sharing and link curation sites,  folksonomies, etc even more so. You can’t treat twitter like a pile of paper to search for the existence of particular words within: it’s too complex a social system. We need to consider the time people dwell online, and how they interact with each other there.

To conclude, It’s always easy to say what people haven’t done and point a finger with ‘it’s more complicated than that’. My argument is that this study spreads itself too thin. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a first sketch towards later work that will learn how to capture the richness of the subject matter. To make a practical suggestion, the iterative research methodology applied by the Cardiff study, which applied feedback from research subjects along the way, strikes me as extremely applicable to studying online media.

I want to reiterate that I suspect the researchers were working with an overly-broad brief and simply weren’t given the resources to meet it. If we want to understand the cultures and politics of science online – and I think we should – we need to fund people with the time and resources to have a proper look.

A bit of Victoriana

Everyone loves a bit of Victoriana at Christmas, so I thought I’d dig out some of my notes on children’s science books in the 19th century.

(preface of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

The 19th century was the age of professionalisation of science. The word “scientist” wasn’t coined until 1833 [EDIT: or even really used until the 1870s], and the period was one for exploring ways to earn a living from scientific work, developing specialist scientific training institutions (including my own) and establishing a flurry of scientific societies. A boom in popularisation of science was part of this process, as the very notion of something to be popularised is both caused by and helps emphasise a sense of a distinct professional culture of science. As Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman have argued, as well as scientists hoping to push out popular texts, there was a ‘pull’ from a keen market of science fans too. This market included young people, or at least the adults who bought books for them.

Not that writing about science for young people was new. One might argue the very first children’s book was on science, but there does seem to have been a bit of a boom in the period. It’s noticeable how many of the writers of such books were women. Indeed, Richard Holmes, in his Observer article last month on the ‘lost women of science’, argued that one of the ways women have quietly contributed to science has been through science communication.

My first example is a publication that (just) predates the 19th century: Evenings at Home: or, the Juvenile Budget Opened by brother and sister team John Aikin and Leatitia Barbauld. Aimed at 7-10s, this appeared between 1792 and 1796 in six, small volumes, each costing one shilling and sixpence and was reprinted throughout the 19th century. Indeed, it remained in print until 1915, its longevity perhaps down to its continual use as a school prize, as well as the fact that the first edition came out of copyright in 1820, just as publishers were looking for content to cheaply republish.

As with many other similar titles, the book aimed to be both ‘instructive and amusing’ (take that ‘edu-tainment’ snobs, it isn’t some kind of recent abhorrence). It’s writers firmly believed that variety was the way to keep a child’s attention, so it mixed genres as well as subject matter – poetry, narrative, dialogue, all used to discuss history, chemistry and botany. It was unusual, however, in that the book didn’t draw out religious aspects to the science as Aikin and Barbauld, brought up in nonconformist Warrington Academy, did not like to impose their religious ideas upon others. This may also be an explanation of its longevity.

Aikin and Barbauld really were quite unusual in this. Indeed, the Religious Tract Society and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were big publishers of children’s science titles during the 19th century.  Here nature was presented as God’s creation, something scientific understanding allowed the reader to marvel at. Reading about science was a form of devotional activity. It’s worth remembering the sorts of divisions we now see between science and religion were not quite so set in place at the time (indeed, the 19th century was a key period for the laying down of such divisions).

That isn’t to say all forms of wonder in children’s popular science were explicitly religious. For example, Peter Parley’s Wonders of the Earth, Sea and Sky (1837) aimed to present the ‘thrilling’ nature of geology, geography and meteorology (though I should note there are still references to God in the book). As historian of science James Secord puts it:

Wonders appeals to the expansive, progressive ethos of the early industrial age. It encouraged young readers to think that adventure, travel and exploration were not just to be read about by the fireside, but possibilities to be actively pursued. With its accounts of shooting stars, mysterious caves, erupting volcanoes and scenes of extinct life, the book opened up strange new worlds to its readers. This was how many Victorians first obtained their sense of the vast global territory that was coming under the eye of western science

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 3: ix-x)

Peter Parley was a character of sorts. Originally the mom-de-plume of a New England writer, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Wonders was penned by a London-based writer, Samuel Clark, taking up the Parley brand. The narration is rather personable, talking directly to his ‘young friends’ and discusses things as if he is relaying past travels: visiting Mary Anning’s fossil shop, walking behind the falls at Niagara. Their somewhat avuncular tone is slightly different from many of its competitors, which were more likely to apply a dialogues with mothers or staged presentations between children (e.g. Tom Telescope, 1761).

Another book which applied the role of an explicitly male narrator, although this time a real person, was John Henry Pepper’s The Boys Playbook of Science. First published in 1860, in a relatively expensive gold-decorated cloth binding, it was another favourite of school prizes. It was also the most widely red introduction to physics and chemistry for young people in mid/late Victorian era.  Pepper was a star of the London stage (the inventor of ‘Peppers Ghost’) and the book’s biggest attraction was its instructions for activities sometimes known as ‘experiments’ but better described as demonstrations.

(page 25 of John Henry Pepper’s Playbook, 1860, via googlebooks clip)

According to James Secord, the Playbook started to fall out of fashion by the First World War. Perhaps it was a victim of changes in science (e.g. the impact of relativity and quantum physics), or more in the style of communication to young people (a revolt against Victorian didacticism). The real difference between the Playbook and its successors Secord argues, is that children’s science books of the post-Sputnik era were about recruiting for scientific careers, where as Pepper was much more about moral improvement. For Pepper, scientific play was a sort of intellectual equivalent of the health and moral benefits of sport, and thus an embodiment and contributor to the increasingly gendered nature of physics in the 19th century onwards.

Young men were not asked to memorize hundreds of experiments, nor necessarily to follow careers as scientists and engineers; instead, what mattered most was mental preparation for the challenges of the modern world of global capitalism, in which life was a ‘race’ both with one’s immediate fellows and with those of other countries. Readers were expected to use the Playbook to build character and prepare for ‘The Battle of Life’, to serve nation and empire

(James Secord, in Aileen Fyfe,  2003, Science For Children, volume 6, ix)

I’ve saved the best for last: Arabella Buckley’s Fairyland of Science. Published by the map and travel publishers, Stanfords, in 1879, it was immensely popular and reprinted across north America, as well as being translated into Danish and Polish. The book aimed to cash in on the Victorian mania for fairies, and embossed gilt fairies adorned its cover. Like the Playbook, it had it’s roots in a lecture series; talks given to middle-class children in in St John’s Wood, although it feels more like storytelling than Pepper’s flashy theatrical displays.

Buckley’s mix of science and fairytale might not sit well with everyone, but as with many science writers who have followed her application of fiction or allusions to magic, the point is to imply that science is as wonderful but with the added value of being ‘really real’. Buckley’s fairies were physical forces of magnetism or gravity. I think the best way to share it is simply to quote from the first page:

I have promised to introduce you today to the fairy-land of science – a somewhat bold promise, seeing that most of you probably look upon science as a bundle of dry facts, while fairy-land is all that is beautiful, and full of poetry and imagination. But I thoroughly believe myself, and hope to prove to you, that science is full of beautiful pictures, of real poetry, and of wonder-working fairies; and what is more, I promise you that they shall be true fairies, whom you will love just as much when you are old and greyheaded as when you are young; for you will be able to call them up whenever you wander by land or through air; and though they themselves will always remain invisible, yet you will see their wonderful poet at work everywhere around you.

(Arabella Buckley, 1879)

It then goes on to compare Sleeping Beauty with the initial speed of rushing water transforming into an apparently ‘spellbound’ frozen (or ‘sleeping’) state of ice. Buckley then underlines a point of beauty and poetry with reference to a tiny crystals of ice on bushes as water-drops are ‘napping’, and delicate patterns of breath caught on a window-pane.

In some respects, Fairyland of Science followed a similar publishing pattern to the Playbook, revised and reprinted up until roughly the first World War (20 times until 1919, mainly by Macmillan, as well as religious publishing houses), before slowly disappearing. Not that much-loved children’s books ever disappear as, passed on by parents or lovingly stored in personal archives, they can be very sticky cultural objects.

Looking over my shelves of 21st century kids science books, they reflect similar interests, patterns and styles as many of the 18th and 19th century books. Children’s popular science is a lot less formal now, and the genre lost explicit connections to religion a while ago, but the ghosts of Buckley, Parley, Pepper, Aikin and Barbauld still lurk amongst their pages.

Further reading:

  • Much of this post is based on the seven volume Science For Children edited by Aileen Fyfe (Bristol, Thoemmes Press: 2003). This is annoyingly rare – I couldn’t even get a copy at the British Library.
  • For a general overview, Fyfe has put a pdf of her introduction to the Science For Children collection on her publications page.
  • James Secord expanded his piece on John Henry Pepper for Science Magazine, and comes highly recommended.
  • I can also heartily recommend Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace, although you probably need access to an academic library to read it.
  • For those with access through the Times paywall, I wrote about children, science and Christmas for this month’s Eureka, which mentions some of these books in a larger context.
  • I’ve included googlebooks links above to all the titles I’ve mentioned, so you can read them for yourself. Personally I find these things fascinating, and hope you do too.

Finding the lost women of science

You might have read Richard Holmes’ article in the Observer this weekend on the “lost” women of Victorian Science.

As several people pointed out, these people weren’t “lost” to all of us. Anyone with an interest in Victorian popular science will have heard of at least some of these names already. But that doesn’t mean such people are generally known about. Neither does it mean people who didn’t know about these people are somehow ignorant or stupid. Maybe you don’t know about Arabella Buckley, you know other things.

As Holmes himself writes:

Science should sow “seeds”. Science should broadcast, should disperse the seeds of knowledge to all and as imaginatively as possible. Science, and the scientific method, should become a new means of general education and enlightenment, not merely for the elite. Until scientific knowledge was explained, explored and widely understood by the population at large, the work of scientists would always be incomplete.

The same is true for the study of science’s history. It’s all very well sitting there and saying “I knew that already” (as I admit, I smugly did while reading Holmes) but what use is that (unless all you want to be is sit being smug I suppose).

A few people on twitter had the idea for a group-blog on the topic throughout December (i.e. the last month of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary year). Join us! Tell us about a woman of science you think more people should know about, or take the time to do some research into one you’d like to know more about, and then share what you’ve learnt.

We’d like to keep some connection to the Royal Society, so someone connected with UK science is preferred. It’s worth noting that the Royal Society’s journals are free to access until the 30 Nov (right back to 1665), which might be useful for research. Also, to add to the people mentioned by Holmes, there is a good list here.

Have a think and leave a comment here with who you think you’ll write about (you might be able to link up with someone writing about a similar topic). When you’ve posted your piece, leave a link here too, so I can put up a list of all the pieces at the start of the new year, ready for the next 350 years of the Royal Society’s history.

Me, I’ll extend on some of the kids’ writers Holmes mentions (i.e. Arabella Buckley). EDIT: done! Although I do talk about men in that post too, because I don’t really like dividing up history like that.

Does my brain look big in this?

According to an oft-cited paper by Marcel LaFollette, a 1926 magazine once introduced an eminent medical researcher as a woman whose mahogany furniture “gleams”. From the same study, but a 1950 magazine, a senior figure in the Atomic Energy Commission was praised for sewing her own clothes. Later, via Dorothy Nelkin, Maria Mayer (Nobel physics prize, 1963) was described as “a tiny, shy, touchingly devoted wife and mother… her children were perfectly darling” and Barbara McClintock (Nobel prize in medicine, 1983) introduced as “well known for baking with black walnuts”.

In today’s more enlightened times, we see women scientists in an entirely different light. No longer do we look past the prizes, publications and other achievements to a gleaming kitchen table. No, we look at the woman herself and er, um… well, maybe we linger too long on certain other features of her femininity which similarly obscure her professionalism. I am referring, of course, to the emergence of scientific ‘totty‘ (or hottie, if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic).

To give you a flavour of what I mean, the following are descriptions of women scientists, from profiles of them written in the British press in early 21st Century:

shoes of teetering altitude [...and a] miniskirt of dizzying brevity [she] may be Britain’s leading authority on the brain, but it is her physique that turns heads

We must mention the makeover [...] accessorised, a sparkling intellect doesn’t get you in on to the pages of Vogue

She looks like an off-duty Bond girl, but she’s actually a physicist [...] given the chance, plenty of viewers would happily experiment with [her]

Lab coats, safety googles – and killer heels [...] getting teenagers all steamed up over science

The above quotes (and historical examples) were all snaffled from a recent paper by media scholars at the University of Cardiff, Mwenya Chimba and Jenny Kitzinger. Part of a larger project considering the representation of women scientists in UK media, this paper notes the attention given to women scientists’ appearance compared to men, as well as the slightly different places women are used to talk about science. This is a topic discussed by many science bloggers last July, following a thoughtful post by Sheril Kirshenbaum, but it’s interesting to see systematic research on the topic too.

Chimba and Kitzinger’s research was rooted in an analysis of 51 interviews with scientists, 8 of which were with women, pulled from a sample of 12 UK national papers between January and Jun 2006. They also explored profiles of Susan Greenfield and Kathy Sykes in more breadth. In addition to this content analysis, they collected data from 86 female scientists about what they liked and disliked about media representations as well as their own experiences of working with the the media (questionnaire, follow up interviews and six focus groups).  Finally, they explored emerging findings with more scientists, as well as journalists and communication professionals (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 611-2). I personally wasn’t entirely sure of a focus on profiles as representing representation of women in science across media, especially considering the stress on Greenfield and Sykes. However, I can also see why they took that approach and the other side of the research helps them broaden their scope very neatly. Moreover, I think if you remember the context from which these profile analysis came, they are still worth thinking about.

One clear difference emerged from studying the 51 profiles: the attention given to the appearance of women scientists. Half of the profiles of women referred to their clothing, physique and/or hairstyle whereas this was only true for 21% of the profiles of men. Such references might seem fairly innocuous, especially when located within a generally positive article, but Chimba and Kitzinger stress the ways in which references to a man’s appearance carry a different tone. For example, while women might be described as having a ‘mane of blonde hair’, the focus for men is more likely to be on a beard, with rather different connotations: ‘His full white beard is worn more in homage to Charles Darwin than the Almighty’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 612-3). It’s not just journalists doing this: hunting out a line about ‘the Nigella of science’, they found it was sold to an editor by a television company’s PR agency (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 617).

References to hair and heels, etc might be welcomed as a way of showing off a generally unseen glamorous side to science. Chimba and Kitzinger also note the way in which a headline such as ‘Blonde hair, short skirt, big brain’ could be a mater of a journalist playfully deconstructing the various stereotypes  on offer; challenging images of boffin and bimbo at once (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 613). At the same time, however, we shouldn’t forget the ways a focus on female scientists’ appearance can have very negative consequences. It may draw attention away from the scientist’s professionalism, and there may be the implicit accusation that she is being manipulative and using her sexuality to attract attention (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

For me, the most important finding was the way in which Chimba and Kitzinger draw attention to  the difference in places women are used in science coverage. For example, one publicity officer for a major science organization explained that if they were dealing with a ‘real heavy-weight current affairs programme’ they would go with a white middle-class male, where as BBC breakfast shows would ask specifically for a young, attractive woman (see Boyce & Kitzinger, 2008, pdf). Another of their research subjects reports that she had trouble moving from kids television, where her tomboy image fitted fine, to adult programming, because she couldn’t suit an image of ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 620). Men may signal an aura of gravitas in science, whilst women are used when the science is being made ‘accessible’ or ‘sexy’; a possible divide between real scientists and scientifically flavoured ‘eye-candy’ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616).

The paper also stresses that women aren’t just the objects of media representation, they are active creators and negotiator of their own image, even if they do not always have control over this conditions of this (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 616). They noted an ambivalence in some of the interviews, and sense that they were in processes of negotiation. For example, one spoke of it as a matter of ‘walking a tightrope’; how much do they use it for their advantage, ‘or is that getting in bed with the devil?’. Further, such a representation would a woman more than just professionally. One mentioned being personally flattered as well as personally and professional offended. Another said she gave up because of the personal pressure on image (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 619).

Men on television get letched over too, of course, and this can make them feel uncomfortable too. Whether it has the same impact on their career is debatable though. It’s difficult being a scientist-populariser at the best of times, but Chimba and Kitzinger suggest, it is especially risky for women, especially as sexuality gets folded into this. Playing with the term ‘media whore’, they quote Laura Barton in saying ‘even in the intellectual world there are slags [a derogatory term for  promiscuous women] and there are studs [an admiring term for promiscuous men]‘ (Chimba & Kitzinger, 2010: 614).

Personally, I don’t mind the odd bit of glamourous science media, but it shouldn’t become a dominant theme. Scientists should not feel as if they have to play up a glamorous image in order to do any public work. Neither should we sort our media scientists into serious debate with men of gravitas on one side, and a bit of girlie chat/ tickle your fancy on the other. If nothing else, it’s limiting; for audiences as well as scientists. I think we should be aiming for a diversity of voices in our science media (and I don’t mean diversity simply in terms of gender).

  • Chimba, M., & Kitzinger, J. (2009). Bimbo or boffin? Women in science: An analysis of media representations and how female scientists negotiate cultural contradictions Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662508098580

What do you think?