the observatory

Women science writers conference about changing the ratio

A summit last weekend presented actions to address systemic gender inequities in science journalism
June 18, 2014


Image credit: Perrin Ireland

CAMBRIDGE, MAScience writers take a “show me the numbers” approach when tackling a tough topic. So organizers of the first Solutions Summit for Women in Science Writing came armed with their own data to back up recent concerns that gender bias, inequity, and sexual harassment are still holding women back. This included a new survey showing that women science writers reported far more negative professional experiences related to their gender than male science writers, including work-related harassment.

A science writers’ bill of rights, an online clearinghouse on sexual harassment, mentoring networks, updated codes of conduct, and efforts to reduce tokenism were among the practical strategies that attendees at last weekend’s conference recommended to help educate both science writers and employers about gender issues.

“We’ve been working in science writing a long time. We’re all feeling that we are bumping into barriers we did not expect and did not accomplish the things we expected to accomplish,” said Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor with 30-plus years of experience in the field.

“Our intent is to be forward-looking and use this conference as a starting point for solving some of these (gender-related) problems,” said developmental biologist and science writer Emily Willingham, the summit’s primary organizer. The 90 participants gathered at Massachusetts Institute of Technology were predominantly woman science writers from around the country who were at various stages in their careers, from graduate students to senior editors and writers.

The latest round of gender worries arises at a time when far more women are going into science, environment, and medical writing, but there is a dearth of decent-paying staff jobs. Many more science writers are freelancing for a living, pitching for assignments, negotiating for pay, and subject to the whims of assigning editors. Add gender bias to the mix, and the situation gets more precarious.

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Willingham said the new survey findings suggested that inappropriate professional behavior toward women science writers may be more widespread than expected. The survey, commissioned for the summit, produced 422 responses from American science writers who were members of three science, health and environment writing organizations. Three-fourths of them were women with an average of nearly 20 years experience. Nearly 45 percent were freelancers, and most were members of the National Association of Science Writers, which provided funding for the Cambridge conference.

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.

Willingham noted that while the survey respondents were self-selected, “it’s the first quantification of what’s been anecdotal sharing up to now. With 400 responses, the data are worth attention.” Jennifer Bogo, executive editor of Popular Science, agreed: “It’s a fair assessment of a real problem. There’s a tangible downside to being a woman in journalism.”

“It’s the best data we have and gives a good sense of the problem,” said Laura Helmuth, science and health editor at Slate. As a member of the 15-member NASW board (where women now outnumber men two to one), Helmuth plans to explore creating an online clearinghouse for science writers on sexual harassment as well as other new initiatives in the aftermath of the summit.

University of Wisconsin science writing graduate students Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar conducted the survey, working with Blum and Willingham. They also assembled a striking set of journalism and science writing statistics for the summit. Among the findings: 

●      Men are much more likely to report on technology and general science than women. Women produced only 35 percent of tech and 38 percent of science stories in a study of coverage by major news organizations in late 2013. Health reporting is fairly equal among men and women.

●      In annual popular science writing anthologies, both contributors and guest editors skew strongly toward men. Over the past five years, about 80 percent of contributors and 70 percent of guest editors of Best American Science and Nature Writing were men. (Blum, the 2014 guest editor, noted that the volume she edited will feature equal numbers of contributions from women and men.)

●      A sampling of New York Times stories in January through February 2013 showed gender imbalances in sources cited: science stories cited 21 men, five women; tech stories 70 men, 11 women; and health stories cited 65 men, 40 women. (Political, business, and foreign coverage was even more heavily skewed toward men.)

●      A list of the top 10 most influential popular science books by New Scientist magazine included nine men and one woman author.

 The summit was an outgrowth of a provocative workshop at the National Association of Science Writers’ annual meeting last November that centered on general concerns about gender bias and inequity in pay and assignments, as well as sexual harassment. Shortly before the meeting, a social media frenzy drew widespread attention to a case involving sexual harassment accusations by several young female bloggers against an influential, male blogs editor at Scientific American.

The summit attracted leaders of science writing programs at New York University, the University of Georgia, Boston University, Wisconsin and MIT. Many said they wanted to do more to prepare their largely female (at least 3 out of 4) students for the changing work environment. 

“We want them to work in a world unconstrained by harassment and inequality,” said Tom Levenson, director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and a member of the conference committee.

“I’ve never seen such smart, well-prepared women coming into the workplace,” added Paula Apsell, longtime head of the popular PBS NOVA science documentary series. “But I think we are losing ground. I’m very depressed about it. I look at younger women, and many don’t have the same feminist attitudes we did.”

One of NOVA’s summer interns is Eleanor Nelsen, a young PhD chemist who plans to go into science journalism. In an interview as the conference started, Nelson said she was concerned about gender inequality but “hesitant to identify as a feminist.”  As the summit ended, she changed her tune:  “I think I’m ready to call myself a feminist,” she tweeted. Nelsen said she found the conference “really encouraging. If enough people want things to change, I’m optimistic they will change. It seems like collective action is needed.”

The women in science writing conversation has outlasted the close of the summit and continues on Twitter at hashtag #SciWriSum14

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.