Women–in many arenas–are often not as readily recognized or recalled as men in the same arenas. There are many causes and variables, ranging from overt sexism to much more socialization aspects. Often, there are many women in these arenas, they’re simply overlooked. Sadly a surprising number of people–both male and female–react negatively to seemingly innocuous ways to increase recognition and visibility.
Take this example, for instance, which started with a simple but piercing observation and question. Some months ago, following the launch of several new blog networks, Jenny Rohn noted that there was a prevalence of male bloggers represented. This sparked some questions in the blogosphere. Was this representative of the makeup of science blogging? Doubtful. Well then, where were the female bloggers?
Martin Robbins asked precisely this question. Robbins was flooded with responses on Twitter. Within a couple of days, there was a list of over 100 women science bloggers–and even more listed in the comments. At some point, someone suggested an aggregate feed, and Kate Clancy–prof, mom, and roller derby diva–created the Women Sciencebloggers (#wsb) FriendFeed.*
Recently, I posted a link to the #wsb FriendFeed on Twitter. Some folks (including a couple of male bloggers) were very receptive and kindly retweeted the link. And then came a reply I perhaps should have expected: “A women science blogs feed? A tad segregationist, don’t you think?”
I proceeded to have a conversation with the person to explain where it came from and why it was necessary (at least from my perspective). Isn’t it the quality of writing that matters? What does gender have to do with science? Why not feature a mixture of good writing? Does this really contribute to gender equality? Although this question was about science blogging, I’ve heard similar debates regarding disciplines in science, and I suspect they’re the same ones that are had in many other fields. So, if the goal is gender equality in a given arena, why single out or draw attention to a particular woman or group of women? Here’s my take, which I can’t fit in 140 characters.
Isn’t it the quality that matters? Why not feature a mix of good writing, independent of gender?
Everyone should be judged, first and foremost, by the quality of their work, whether it is writing or science or art. But to judge the work, you first have to see the work. And that is a where this all starts. Female science bloggers don’t seem to be as visible as male counterparts. The same situation can be observed in research when, for example, tossing around ideas for seminar speakers or panel members; it often takes someone mentioning, “Hey, there are no women on this list” before people start throwing out the names of equally accomplished women. The reasons are numerous and complex. The goal of the #wsb feed is to increase the visibility of women science bloggers, hence it features women science bloggers. Calling attention to women scientists or women bloggers may not contribute directly to gender equality, but I think it does change how people perceive the field.
What does gender have to do with __________ ?
Nothing. And everything. I hope that most people would agree that there are no intrinsic differences in talent or quality (of writing, research, leadership…) that are attributable to gender. Being a woman does not inherently make me a better or worse scientist or blogger than a man. But gender–and associated privileges, stereotypes, –do have an affect on how we see, hear, do, and interpret things. It also alters others’ perceptions and expectations of our attitudes and behavior.
I consider myself quite fortunate. I never considered my being a woman in science as anything out of the ordinary until I was in grad school, because I had extraordinarily supportive parents and instructors in high school and undergrad. But as I look at higher levels in science (e.g. professors, managers…), I see fewer and fewer women. The longer I stay in science, the more I see the unique challenges and attitudes that women encounter. Again, some are subtle, some are not: how many times I get asked when I’m planning to have kids as compared male colleagues, how social norms affect the perception of how I should behave (and what it says about me when I don’t), the postdoc who chats with me not out of scientific but out of sexual interest. Some things I can ignore (like questions about kids), some I can adapt (like how I approach self-promotion), and some I have to deal with (like telling someone his behavior is inappropriate). Having to deal with these sorts of things can really suck, but it’s somehow helpful to know that others have been there and how they’ve responded. For the most part, everyone cannot, will not, and should not respond in exactly the same way, but there’s comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.
We’re not setting out to create a cult of women science bloggers bent on world domination. We’re just looking to some camaraderie, commiseration, and counsel.
* As an aside, I’m one of the #wsb FriendFeed admins, so if there are any issues with RSS feeds aggregated there or you don’t see a blog you think should be there, let me know via comment, email, or Twitter.