Unlike speakers of many other languages, English speakers are, perhaps, fortunate in being able to utter the words “I am a blogger”, without identifying themselves with a particular gender. Nevertheless, it would seem that there are still major issues surrounding gender in UK science blogging. And primary amongst these is undoubtedly the lack of females blogging about science online.
Science is supposed to be a great, progressive, universal enterprise and the internet is supposed to be a wonderful, egalitarian, levelling tool, where factors such as skin-colour, class, gender and age are of no concern. Yet, when it comes to using the internet to blog about science, the facts show that this field is disproportionately dominated by men.
Essentially, this was the main issue Monday night’s Talkfest event was trying to deal with. But there were also sub-questions for event chair, Dr Alice Bell, and her panel of Hannah Devlin, Dr Heather Mendick, Martin Robbins, and Dr Jenny Rohn to discuss:
- Is it actually true that there are fewer female science bloggers than there are men?
- If it is, is it fair to make the a priori assumption that this is a bad thing?
- If we accept that it is a bad thing, then what can we do about it?
The first of these questions was successfully dealt with by Dr Jenny Rohn, who produced some “quick and dirty” evidence showing the gender split of science bloggers on four prominent networks:
This graph is originally from Dr Rohn’s blog post from last September, which first highlighted the problem of too few women in science blogging.
Dr Rohn went on to offer four potential reasons why she thought there might be fewer women than men in science blogging:
- Perhaps more scientists are male*
- Maybe male bloggers are more desirable
- Male bloggers could be better at self promotion
- Perhaps female bloggers are less confident than their male counterparts and also more conflict-averse
*(Dr Rohn later dismissed the first suggestion as a possible cause for the gender discrepancy in science blogging)
Dr Rohn’s points were backed up by evidence from The Times journalist, Hannah Devlin, who highlighted the fact that a recent Eureka list of the 100 most influential people in British science contained a paltry twelve women. Dr Heather Mendick also supported this, saying:” women are the easy targets”. Dr Mendick previously conducted a study of the Bad Science blog and a climate-sceptic blog, and found that the two shared a similar notion of “an un-heroic, bad scientist position, which was disproportionately occupied by women”.
The panel’s final speaker, Martin Robbins of The Guardian, then went on to address the question of why a lack of female science bloggers is inherently a bad thing. As well as there being what he referred to as “moral, humanist, ethical reasons”, Mr Robbins also pragmatically argued: “for a community to communicate actively with the broader world, it needs to be at least reasonably representative”. He went on to say: “I don’t think I can communicate with a female audience quite as well as a female science writer might be able to, just as I don’t necessarily believe that I can communicate to a working class audience quite as well as somebody from a working class background might, and I probably can’t communicate to a right-wing audience as well somebody from a right-wing background might”.
Following this broadening of the scope of the debate, Mr Robins chose to conduct a series of straw polls to ascertain the make-up of the event’s audience. Through this albeit highly un-scientific method, he quickly demonstrated that the audience was severely lacking in people from either working class or right-wing backgrounds. However, perhaps most embarrassingly, only around one quarter of the audience for the debate was male. The debate also, sadly, had significantly less attendees than previous events of its kind.
Yet, this is not to say that the event was not a success. While the question of what could be done to increase the number of female science bloggers remained largely unsolved, important steps were taken in identifying this problem, as well as some of its likely causes. In the pub, after the debate, people seemed to react very positively to many of the issues that had been raised by the panellists. Imran Khan, director of CaSE, had this to say: “Getting more women into blogging isn’t a zero-sum game; it doesn’t mean we have to replace men with women, so why not put our weight behind this important issue and give it a go?”
By A Purcell
On a related note, Chloe McIvor, who was at the event on Monday night, has joined the I, Science blogging team. You can check out her first I, Science blog here tomorrow!
Anyone else wishing to join our blogging team, or simply post a guest blog, should contact us at i.science[at]imperial.ac.uk