Gender and blogging (and everything else)

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.

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13 Responses to Gender and blogging (and everything else)

  1. rocketscientista says:

    Nice response, and you said exactly what I would have said. I’ve never wanted to be judged against a different set of standards, I’ve just wanted to be put in the pile of applications. I once had a male colleague tell me, “you got into school X because you’re a girl!!” No, idiot, it wasn’t because I’m a girl. My test scores and GPA were about the same as yours, and I had other special projects I worked on JACKASS. As a female scientist, I gladly will be compared to my male counterparts- as long as they criteria are fair and clear, which unfortunately they rarely are.

    It’s a matter of adding those names to the pile, and the fewer of us there are, the fewer of us their become (as we go up the ladder)– making sure to get our names out there is all we want. We just want a chance to be included for being the good scientists (bloggers/people) we are!!

  2. gc says:

    Looks like I live in my own corner of the blogosphere – just realized that I have thrice as many women science bloggers as men on my blogroll.

  3. maggi dawn says:

    Good post. Almost exactly this same scenario has played out in the theology corner of the blogosphere. There are more male bloggers overall, but the female-authored blogs are consistently overlooked and sidelined.

  4. biochembelle says:

    I haven’t done a quantitative analysis, but I’d estimate about a 50/50 split in my blogroll (the one in the sidebar is not representative, as I have so many that I only display a few randomly selected ones here). Much as with science/business/etc., as you move into higher profile circles, there aren’t that many women.

    And thanks for stopping by, maggi dawn 🙂

  5. Thanks for posting on this topic. You are right in saying that there are no intrinsic differences between males and females with regard to scientific ability. However, the very biology that separates us from our male counterparts can significantly affect how we are able to conduct our work – I am talking specifically about pregnancy, child birth, and child rearing.

    For example, I would like to share with you my experience. I had my first kid during my last year in grad school and my second kid 1.5 years into my post doc. Because I feel very strongly about exclusive breastfeeding (long term), I have not been to a scientific meeting in over 3 years (my youngest is 17 months and the nursing is still going strong). Although this can be viewed in a negative light with regard to my professional career, I am very happy with my choice. Additionally, I do my best to be a nine to fiver. I am currently the only female post doc in my lab (actually, the only female researcher for that matter) and leave much earlier than my male lab mates. However, that does not mean that my work is any less valuable or is compromised with respect to quality. (Actually, knowing that I have a schedule to keep has made me more efficient and productive.)

    I am very happy to say that my situation is working very well for both my family and my work despite the regular comments dropped by certain colleagues during my pregnancies (i.e. “having a kid is going to ruin your scientific career,” or “you are lucky that our boss is letting you get away with being pregnant.”). It does seem to be getting easier for women scientists who also wish to have a healthy and happy family and I look forward to the time when it is actually expected.


  6. msphd says:

    Yes, this topic comes up from time to time. Periodically someone will ask me what I work on, and say that I should blog more about science and less about the cultural issues I encounter in science or related to science and society. Someone observed a while back (maybe it was FSP?) that women bloggers tend to write more about the problems we encounter with other scientists, than about the science itself. At the time some of us pointed out that this is what we felt we needed to write about, that it fills a need for us and for our readers. We publish scientifically elsewhere, under our real names. But I have to admit, I have wondered if I should also start a scientific commentary blog under my real name. Part of me was afraid that my controversial, confrontational tendencies I’ve let loose via YFS will come out in my other writing and get me in a lot of trouble! Now, I’m not so sure it matters anymore. Maybe I can be a rabble rouser in more ways than one. And that is one of my favorite things to do. Rabble rabble!

  7. I have deliberately been writing my blog under my own name, since I feel that that is important for it to have the impact I want. My aim is to inform the men who do read it (a male student of mine said it had made him think about how he talked to women around him) as well as try to support the women. What I have noticed from my stats, though, is that writing about science gets much less interest! When I started the blog, only a few months ago, I thought (as the strapline says) it was going to be primarily about science, and only a little about being a senior woman. It has turned out the other way round. I feel quite ‘liberated’ being able to put anecdotes out there about things that happened maybe a long while ago but that I am now able to put in perspective with the passage of time (the people in these I always try to describe anonymously). I do feel isolation, the feeling of ‘it must be me’ rather than the ‘system’ or unconscious bias, is something female scientists of all ages can be got down by, and informing them that these things are ubiquitous can be reassuring. But writing under my own name does mean I have to be careful, and some things can never be said because I don’t want to be seen attacking individuals.

  8. Pingback: Gender and Blogging (and everything else) | Euro RSCG Prosumer Reports – Gender

  9. Bashir says:

    We’re not setting out to create a cult of women science bloggers bent on world domination.

    No? That would be something.

  10. Pingback: 12 Months of Biochembelle | There and (hopefully) back again

  11. Pingback: Gender, Science and Blogging | Journalism and New Media

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