The Perils of Writing About Women in Science

Writing about women in science is a tricky business. While you want to champion their contributions across a range of research fields, you also don’t want to single them out as mere “symbols” of women in science. The suggestion is that the term “woman in science” is unnecessary – that women are scientists on par with men, and we don’t write about “men in science”.

It can be tricky to balance writing about women as scientists first and foremost, with writing about advances in the representation of women in science-related positions.

In February, the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) released the list of winners of their major prizes and awards. At the top of the list, receiving the Gerhard Herzberg Medal (as Canada’s so-called “top scientist”), was Dr. Victoria Kaspi, from McGill University. Kaspi is a professor and Canada Research Chair in astrophysics, studying neutron stars and pulsars.

One of the interesting aspects of this award is that Kaspi is the first woman to win the Herzberg Medal in its 25 year history. Alex Bond at The Lab and Field blog has crunched the stats on NSERC awards and medals for the past few years, and noted that – despite this year’s award – women are significantly underrepresented in NSERC’s award list.

But as Marie-Claire Shanahan argues on her blog, Boundary Vision, presenting Kaspi as the first female Herzberg Medal winner has the potential to limit her achievements to those of a token woman in science, rather than as just an excellent scientist – full stop. She argues that “it is overwhelmingly women who are cast [as inspiring and the human face of science], and it’s often the only story ever told about them, leaving men to continue to be cast as the objective and authoritative voices of science.”

Shanahan goes further, comparing two news articles about Kaspi’s medal win. She finds that one is all about Kaspi’s research and accomplishments, and rarely mentions the fact that she’s a woman, while the other focuses on the fact that Kaspi is the first woman to win the award.

Shanahan brings up the Finkbeiner test, which “is meant to guide writers in talking about high profile scientists in venues where their work should be taking centre stage.” Topics to avoid: her gender, child care arrangements, nurturing of research group members, being a role model for other women, etc. The suggestion is that the latter article fails the test.

I completely understand the issue here. Why focus on a woman’s dress, or stereotypical womanly traits (like nurturing and collaboration), when you wouldn’t do the same in writing about a male scientist?

But I find there’s a grey area when you really want to make people aware that – as much as women scientists are just like any other scientist – they’re also an underrepresented group, and that there are societal forces at work that limit the number of women in science.

Shanahan has a follow-up post on this issue, which includes a response from the science writer – Ivan Semeniuk – who wrote the article focusing on Kaspi as the first woman to win the Herzberg Medal. It’s an enlightening read, as it outlines the reasons behind Semeniuk’s decision to structure his article this way, and notes that he didn’t “dwell on [Kaspi’s] parenting and other gender-related qualities” at the expense of her science.

This is where the grey area comes in. Semeniuk writes that “the term Finkbeiner test…was not coined in connection with a story where gender actually matters, but in those where it clearly doesn’t.” He argues that gender is critical to his article about Kaspi’s medal win because of its “broader significance as an indicator of gender imbalance in Canada’s research enterprise.”

I find that I agree with him. His article doesn’t include gratuitous mentions of Kaspi’s gender that are unrelated to her success as a scientist, but rather takes the opportunity to remind people that it’s a sad state of affairs that, in 2016, she’s the first woman to be awarded this medal. I also thought it was particularly relevant that Kaspi studies astrophysics, a field that has been in the news quite a lot lately due to sexual harassment issues.

I was particularly interested in Shanahan and Semeniuk’s conversation because I write a series on Canadian women in science over at the Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) blog. My latest post was on Dr. Imogen Coe, who is the Dean of Science at Ryerson University.

After reading Shanahan’s original post, I was concerned that the CSP women in science series might downplay women’s contributions to science and instead present them as mere role models, as well as including details that aren’t directly relevant to their science. But at the same time I felt that the series was designed to delve into issues of career direction, and work and family – topics that we rarely talk about but that are important to consider as you move forward with your career.

Shanahan and I had a brief Twitter discussion about this, and I was relieved that she didn’t find the series problematic in the ways that I’d envisioned. But I still felt uneasy about it, as I needed to explain to myself why this series was appropriate, but why introducing gender while interviewing a scientist was not appropriate.

I think I’ve sorted out an explanation that makes sense to me. The CSP women in science series is specifically focused on women’s experience in science given their gender. It’s not written to present women scientists as role models, but rather to give an insider’s perspective of career progression narratives to help future scientists – male and female alike – visualize their own potential science careers. It’s similar to the My Sci Career page – the purpose is to broaden our mental image of what a scientist does and how they get there, including any twists in the road along the way. Some of the interviewees are happy to talk about kids and family while others don’t mention it at all – I leave it up to them. But the key point is that they’re all great scientists – and I make sure to describe their science and its relevance! – and they’re all women.

If I were just writing scientist profiles – focusing specifically on the science – then it would be inappropriate to include things related to gender such as what a woman wears, how she tends to the needs of her family while also publishing cutting edge research, etc. The main topic should be the science – regardless of whether the person is male or female. Even in the CSP series, I avoid talking about dress or how stereotypical female traits have served interviewees in the workplace, as these are irrelevant to the broader story.

Interestingly, a news story came across my Twitter feed this morning noting that Marcia McNutt, the former Director of the USGS, former President of the American Geophysical Union, and the current Editor-In-Chief of Science Magazine, has just been appointed the first woman president of the National Academy of Sciences  (NAS). The article was entitled: “McNutt Breaks Barriers as Incoming Science Academy President.” Despite the title, the author did a surprisingly good job of avoiding any gendered references beyond a brief paragraph about McNutt as the first woman to lead the NAS. The focus was more on the fact that she’s the second geoscientist in a row to be appointed, when the post has traditionally alternated between life science and geoscience.

Regardless of the quality of the reporting, some people are just tired of hearing about women being “the first” at many things. As Dr. Mel Thomson notes:

This is definitely true, but the fact remains that these things didn’t happen decades ago – they’re only happening now. Thus when writing about scientists – and women in science – it’s important to celebrate these victories so that, over time, they become commonplace, and we’re no longer surprised when they happen. We just have to remain aware of – and avoid – the tendency to make women’s scientific contributions secondary to their gender.

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4 thoughts on “The Perils of Writing About Women in Science

  1. Clearly argued. I believe it all depends on your focus on and the point to want to make. It would be perfectly all right to pay much attention to gender if you would be writing about how gender influences (if it does) one’s take on science and one’s approach to the social mores of the science community.

  2. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 04/03/2016 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  3. Pingback: Writer’s Block and the Permission to Succeed | Watershed Moments: Thoughts from the Hydrosphere

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