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Jan 27 2011

Doing your part for the ladies of the science blogosphere.

Funny thing happened to me when I was in mom’s womb. I grew a penis. Yeah. I know. Hell of a gift in the grand scheme of things because by virtue of my swinging pipe, it turns out I get a whole lot more say in this world than I’m due. By virtue of some dangly bits I will get better jobs, get more respect, and have a better chance at being heard when I have something to say. I didn’t ask for the hand I was dealt — that’s entirely near-random genetic stuff that I just don’t have the head for.

And yet there are some very excellent science bloggers out there who do have the head for things like genetics and other squishy scientific topics like that — stuff that I can’t fathom, being a mere computer geek and layman. And not just the squishy science, but the math-y science, like particle or astrophysics. By virtue of not having hit the lucky genetic combination, though, they seem to only gain attention when they’re talking about how they’re not getting enough attention. Gender disparity, and gender politics, are the quickest paths to being heard by female science writers it seems. This is a disgrace, because these women know science better than I do — better by far.

The topic came up at Science Online, and reverberated through the blogosphere for the past week, til I decided to chime in. By virtue of my swinging pipe, I will probably be fairly well read on this topic. It is only through acute self-awareness — awareness that I do not deserve this audience on this topic — that I humbly point you to some amazing women writers that don’t get mentioned in the list of favorite science authors any time someone tries to rattle off an informal “top ten” list of their favorites. The fact that Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait, and other male writers always top those short lists when there are equally good female writers is lamentable, but ultimately fixable through better exposure.

Not the kind of exposure they tend to get, though. Christie Wilcox of Observations of a Nerd recently had a fan approach her on Facebook gushing over… you guessed it… her appearance. The fan said, and I quote: “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” Nothing about her science writing — you know, the stuff that made him an admirer — and nothing like the kind of civility you’re expected to give a perfect stranger. So, she wrote a blog post declaring war on the blogosphere. Well, sort of. She expressed her unwillingness to be cowed out of the conversation, and her support of anyone facing these same issues.

The trolls that show up in comments for supporting arguments beat the same drum everywhere you see them. Oh my, the trolls. They are a priceless bunch. On David Dobbs’ “STFU” post, the trolls are the main attraction. The ones that claim that a woman must be intentionally making themselves pieces of meat should someone notice that they have breasts. The ones that claim that they are “bear-baiting” by daring to wear makeup at work, then complaining when they get attention for being attractive. The ones that paradoxically claim that women are doing this to get noticed, while at the same time admitting that women that do not dress attractively do not get ahead in their careers. You create the environment where only attractively attired women get any attention, then you try to shame women for daring to complain that the environment is the real issue.

There are a lot of writers who need to be heard on this topic. SciCurious has declared that she’s going to do what she can to self-promote, and to make sure that that self-promotion is about her science writing no matter how others might construe it. This is a tactic that has worked once for Rebecca Skloot, whose incredibly popular and (so far as I’ve managed to read) thoroughly excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has won her awards and accolades beyond many male science writers, even while she is never mentioned as a science writer in people’s “top tens”. Sci also discusses the use of sex to sell science, and the advantages and disadvantages thereof. Meanwhile, she’s ACTUALLY “busting, busting up the stereotypes”. Unlike the Science Cheerleaders, whose advocacy of science is at best the repeated refrain of “GO SCIENCE!”. No science to be seen there.

Kate Clancy highlights the ‘friend bias’ of cliquishness in the blogosphere, and another where women can say something which is ignored until a man comes along and says the very same thing. These are important trends to note, and to counteract as much as possible — if you see someone ignoring that a woman made the exact same point three comments prior, damn well point it out. If you see that certain commenters latch onto conversation with men, while wholly ignoring pointed and excellent questions from women, damn well point it out.

And Stephanie Zvan identifies the real issue: people simply aren’t engaging with women on their science. Yes, Our Lady of Perpetual Win lives up to her deified moniker, as usual. Not only is it problematic that people are ignoring the work women do in science (much less conversations about science), but it’s also problematic when the only time people regularly retweet, share, or link women into the discussion is when it’s about gender politics. Why is it always about gender politics? Why can’t it be about science?

I’m going to continue my usual effort to promote good science and spread the word regardless of who’s writing it (and the Ed Yong link I posted above is specifically a list of good science that happens to have been written by women). This isn’t a call for “equal opportunity” measures. It is a demand that women not be overlooked for their science work. With my own job taking so much of my time lately, I’ve had difficulty doing as much sharing of science links on Twitter as I might like. I’m going to intentionally devote more time to that practice. I’ve come to follow on Twitter a rather disproportionate number of female science writers in the wake of Science Online 2011, so I expect my promotion of scientific articles will also be rather disproportionately from females. At least, I’m hoping so. Otherwise I’m not really doing my part, am I?

While I have your ear, here’s a blog that has only one post on it yet, though it has all the promise of a newborn. Our Science is a new blog on Nature.com written by a 9th grader named Naseem, an attendee of Scio11, who promises to cover topics like the 2012 doomsday predictions, the recent “aflockalypse”, and why you should consider a career in science. She is catching people’s attention early, and if she’s as good a writer as she seems in the first post, I have every anticipation this will be a breakout skeptical and science-populism blog for the new year. If nothing else, it will be a testament to humanity to watch a 9th grader’s love for science grow as she explores it.

Her gender, mind you, is entirely a circumstance of sorta-random genetics.

1 comment

2 pings

  1. 1
    Veronica Akle

    I truly appreciate your efforts, and hope that your promotion does pay off. I have to say, however, I can’t but feel a little humiliated to read that your advocacy could make more of an impact in readers than the actual science written in blogs by women.
    I recently tweeted to @sciencegoddess that when I told a fellow phd student (male) that I had started a bilingual blog, he replied: “about being a mom?”. It was part frustrating, but part motivating: If we don’t self-promote, we might continue to be undermined by others. By the way, my blog is a science blog, and I am just learning from the best many of whom you mentioned in your post.
    Again, thanks for the encouragement and promotion. I look forward to the day when good people (in science) and all, are seen as humans before their gender.

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