January 26, 2011

Hidden Women, Hidden Writers

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.


KateClancy said...

This is so great. So many things resonated with me that I kept copying different lines with the intent to comment on them! But so as not to hijack the thread, I'll just point out one:

"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."

Exactly. I think the fact that people are RTing the crap out of mine and Christie's post is that it resonated with a lot of people, and that there are lots of good men out there that want to be our allies. But people weren't RTing our other work as much (though to be fair, I put a lot more effort into crafting the one I wrote than I normally do, so it is likely a better piece of writing than some of my other stuff). My hope is that with all of our posts, and with your important reminders that we should be promoting all good work by women, not just the good work that is gendered and by women, we can look forward to more attention on our contributions. Because we do contribute. And those contributions are really good. And it's a shame that I miss so many of them.

ALL Florida Bee Removal said...

Hey, why doesn't everybody purchase MY services?

Ed posts tweets like crazy, AND he responds to folks who tweet him. He's like the song you can't get out of your head. He's a great marketer of his services.

Stephanie Zvan said...

My three most enduringly viewed posts on this blog are one on rape statistics and two access through image searches (Bettie Page and an "adult" Strawberry Shortcake). I promise I will not lose sight of the differential treatment of sexual politics posting. :/

David, I agree with you in large part on Rebecca vs. Ed and Carl (now there's a match to watch!). It gets more complicated, however, by the fact that it's a bit circular. Why was no one demanding that Rebecca come teach us all how to write bestsellers and get movie deals?

Thank you, Kate.

Michelle said...

1. Love this - I'm bringing this to my science writing class this morning - I teach at a women's college where 1/3 of the students major in math or science (we have almost as many math majors as English majors!)

2. There is a really persistent image that a scientist is a guy (with bad hair wearing a lab coat) I suspect this means that when asked for a list of science sorts, many of our brain, irrespective of the gender of the body they inhabit) pull up the pattern of guy, bad hair, lab coat and start matching -- and suddenly a list pops out that starts with the guys. (Full disclosure - I wrote a bit about this for an opinion piece in Nature Chemistry last fall - here (subscribers only, alas - but if you want a reprint, let me know)

3. Are guys more likely to be impolitic? to provoke rather than There is some evidence that that attracts more attention in the blog scene (see Eur. Phys. J. B 77, 597-609

Stephanie Zvan said...

Thanks, Michelle. On #3, I am only an anecdote, but I like to argue. Rather a lot. It is all but impossible to get into an argument on my own blog. Someone who doesn't like what I say just leaves instead of engaging. I do most of my arguing on other blogs, and even there, it's often difficult to get anyone--no--to get guys to respond to me.

Unknown said...

I really like this piece, especially its challenge to the community writing online.

The contrast between your piece and Dobbs today is illustrative, David telling guys to STFU, you saying we need to do better in focusing on writing, science, ideas, and the like.

Among the blogging community, we do need a better job at engaging, which means promoting, highlighting, criticizing, and the like.

I agree, it's not just that certain people tend to promote the same certain people's work. It's the idea that certain people are the ideal. That in itself is pernicious.

Breaking that idea, and that ideal, takes active engagement, as you so rightly say, and not just lamenting that there are problems and men need to STFU and women need to create networks and the like.

That recreates the divide, and won't do enough to create engagement throughought the entire community and the creation of new ideals.

Thanks for a great post.

Ed Yong said...

The analogy to romance literature is a solid one, but I sense a bit of a confounder. Christie’s post got a lot of attention and commentary because (a) it focuses on an issue and (b) it’s written in a challenging style. I get the same discrepancy if when I write opinion pieces about science journalism or blogging – far far more comments and RTs than a standard science-of-the-day post. This isn’t to say that the gendered nature of the post had nothing to do with it but it’s worth considering how much this contributed to the size of the effect.

This minor minor grumble aside, this is a great post. On the subject of attention, I’ve said elsewhere that there are two ways people come across stuff – we actively seek it out and we have it brought to us. We need to improve the visibility of female bloggers on both fronts. This is the basis behind my comments on self-promotion that have echoed round the place, and I won’t repeat them here. For my part, I already try to push the work of my favourite female science writers, like Maryn McKenna, Alice Bell, SciCurious, Deborah Blum, Christie etc. etc. There’s actually a pretty long list but the whole discussion about self-promotion made me realise that I track some of this stuff less often than I should. So I’ve added a bunch of really good people to my RSS reader. Also, worth noting that self-promotion and active searching feed into one another – a couple of people who have taken me up on my DM offer are now on said RSS reader. It cuts both ways – we need to broaden the headlights, and it would help if others wore reflective strips.

The joy of posts like this, Kate’s, Christie’s etc. is that they remind us about these issues and force us to think about them. Not everyone will, but every time they get raised, (I hope) incrementally more people start to get it, and those of us who sort of get it get it a little bit more. The point about Rebecca’s position on lists, for example, is a great and thought-provoking one – she should be front and centre.

Anonymous said...

Ed Yong does indeed promote loads of women science bloggers; I've discovered several thanks to him. So lay off my buddy Ed. :) He's an agent for change, and uses his powers for good. So does Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy.

That said, there's definitely an invisibility problem. Cocktail Party Physics is all women, in fact, and rarely gets any top mentions, although there are other reasons for that beyond gender invisibility (longer, more infrequent posts, the fact that there are far fewer physics blogs out there than, say, skepticism, biology and neuroscience, etc).

And let's not forget Ed's comment at Scio11, that men often DM him asking to retweet their posts and women never do. I'm as guilty of this as the next woman -- and I'm hardly a shrinking violet. :) Cultural conditioning is hard to kick.

So maybe a good starting point to instigate change might be:

1. Female bloggers: start asking for attention; heck, just demand it. :)

2. Male bloggers: start seeking out female bloggers a bit more to highlight.

And we'll see where we can go

Stephanie Zvan said...

Ed is awesome and definitely part of the solution. David and Daniel too. I'm quite sure Ed's comment had as much to do with his self-deprecating British charm as anything. It just raised something that needed highlighting. Plus I got him to go back and check his linking stats. :)

Ed Yong said...

"Ed is... definitely part of the solution"

Only because others precipitated it...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the many excellent points both in the original post and in comments.

At the risk of offering yet another excuse for the omission of Rebecca's name from those top writer discussions, I do wonder whether cognitive framing might have had something to do with it, too. Carl and Ed write prodigiously online and in print. Rebecca has done excellent work in both media, too, but she's primarily known these days for her outstanding book. And indeed, whenever I've been in a discussion about great science books over the past year, her "Immortal Life" and Deborah Blum's "The Poisoner's Handbook" always seem to be the first books listed. So I wonder whether the speakers were unconsciously picking names from the ranks of bloggers more than book writers. Even if so, that may not negate your larger point.

Kelly McCullough said...

Interesting analogy with Romance in terms of visibility/respect. Romance is a bit over fifty percent* of the fiction market, and thus the dominant form of fiction in America, dwarfing the much more respected genre of literary fiction as well as all of the other genres, yet in terms of critical acclaim Romance doesn't get nearly the respect it deserves, generally coming in last in terms of the way it's spoken of. This despite the fact that something on the order of 3/4s of all books are bought by women, many of whom demonstrably (see sales figures) read romance.

*Last time I checked. The numbers are available via RWA.

D. C. said...

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.

And no, it's not just you. We have the same complaint (however politely put) from Justice Ginsburg (and IIRC Justice O'Connor as well.)

Anonymous said...

Ed and Carl being listed first and Rebecca later or not at all is partly because of cliquishness. Rebecca is not necessarily being excluded because she is not part of any of the key bloggy cliques, but Ed and Carl very much are, and thus Rebecca gets forgotten. The fact that she is number one and is not listed as number one is, in my opinion, not because she is a woman, though it could have been that way had other factors not been at play.

Of the first three points you reiterate from Clancy's post, I think the third is the most relevant and common in my opinion. The friend bias can work a number of ways and as women are simply more common or active in a subfield the good old boy network can easily become a good old girl network. Women always get talked over and the guy saying the thing the woman just said is very real, and bad, but has become so obvious as it is almost cliche. Those are important points, but the third point is where the really bad shit happens, as we've seen in many different contexts.

There are girl versions of Ed and Carl. I'm surprised no one has mentioned them. I would start with Jennifer Ouellette. Gina Kolata is not chopped liver. Pat Shipman has done major real science, published successful science books for the public, and has had an amazing science writing career. Ed and Carl are babies compared to these women. They, like Rebecca, just happen to not be big in blogs.

One of the down sides of something like Science Online 20xx (and there are very few down sides) is that it makes it feel like the whole world is all about blogs. And sometimes it is. But only sometimes.

It may be an important irony that the blogosphere has reinvented sexism in the 21 century. Shame.

Scicurious said...

See, this is another thing that I find interesting. I DIDN'T REMEMBER Jennifer Oullette. I just READ HER BOOK, and I did not remember that she has a killer blog. I even interact with her frequently, more frequently than I do with Carl Zimmer, for example. But her name was not in my mind, and I think that's partially because the men's names are much more in the public consciousness in the science blog world. I think that says a LOT about the biases we are dealing with.

Stephanie Zvan said...

And hooray to Christina for pointing out that all of this applies to other underrepresented and underlauded groups as well: http://scienceblogs.com/oscillator/2011/01/everyones_talking_about_it.php