Houston, we have a gender problem

At one point during the latest interminable tiff over whether framers or the “New” Atheists are the more evil, Matt Nisbett called “male rhetoric”, senso “this isn’t a real argument, it’s a pissing contest!” Snark aside, there may be more than a kernel of truth in his observation that the blogospheric conversation about this issue is somewhat male dominated. And maybe not just in that one particular arena, given that The Scientist kicked off a poll to highlight the best Life Science blogs by asking seven of the “best known science bloggers” to nominate some of their favorites – and not one of them was a woman. This has prompted Sheril to ask, What’s up with this blogosphere being so gosh darn male dominated?. It’s not an issue I’ve really considered or (to my shame) noticed before; fortunately, Zuska is here to (quite rightly) point out that all these little things add up to one big problem.

In fact, my own experiences provide a slightly mixed picture: amongst my fellow Sciblings the men definitely have the upper hand numerically, although on the womens’ team Grrl, Janet, Zuska, Tara, Sheril, Shelley, Karmen and the rest all put me firmly in the shade, both in terms of the quality of their writing and their traffic. The geoblogosphere is fairly well represented numerically (and outstandingly well generally) by Kim, Alessia, Julia, Sarda and of course yami (who was geoblogging before I’d even heard of blogs). And amongst the post-doc community the likes of Propter Doc, Am I a woman scientist, Katie, and Ms PhD feature high amongst my favourite reads. But I can’t deny that, on the whole, the scientific blogosphere appears to have more than its fair share of testosterone coursing through it (if anyone has some actual numbers, I’d be interested to see them). The question is, what’s causing that imbalance? Is it something inherent within the system, or is it external factors skewing the population that chooses to blog in the first place?
On the face of it, internal factors would seem to be an unlikely explanation: you can’t prevent someone from starting a blog, after all. But you can not link to them – there is a hierarchy within the blogging world, and this allows for the possibility of discrimination in terms of who the A-listers, and editors of other sites which link to blogs, choose to link to and promote. If nothing else, the Scientist poll shows that this can quite easily happen, even inadvertently.
As for external factors, the pool for potential scientific bloggers is unfortunately rather skewed in favour of men anyway, particularly in the higher echelons of academia; this can’t help. There’s also the possibility of a more general explanation – that proportionally more women just don’t see the point of blogging, or are put off from trying by the apparent ease with which you can pick up sexist morons to patronise, harass and stalk you.
So there’s some possible factors, which I suspect probably all contribute. Perhaps some of the bloggers and commentators with a more personal perspective can illuminate things further in the comments.

Categories: bloggery

Comments (2)

  1. Kim says:

    the pool for potential scientific bloggers is unfortunately rather skewed in favour of men anyway, particularly in the higher echelons of academia; this can’t help.

    I don’t think that the smaller number of women science bloggers is a result of having few women at the higher echelons of academia. From what I’ve seen, the blogosphere is populated more by grad students and post-docs than by faculty. (There are a number of people in industry and government jobs, as well.) And amongst grad students and post-docs as a whole, the numbers of men and women tend to be more balanced.
    But the reasons for the smaller numbers of women science bloggers may be similar to the reasons for smaller numbers of women full professors (which was essentially what Zuska said – the research by Virginia Valian is pretty compelling, and I know a number of women geoscientists who found Valian’s work depressingly familiar).
    Here is one thought that comes from thinking about Valian’s work: what if blogging is harmful to the careers of women scientists – or if women scientists perceive that it will harm their careers? (I know that men also worry about this – there is a reason why many post-docs and grad students blog anonymously. But I wonder if it’s more of a problem for women.)
    The reason I wonder comes from one disturbing statistic from Valian’s work. She looked at the correlation of various experiences with salary in the business world. And she found that there were a number of things that appeared to increase men’s salaries, but decrease women’s. The ability to speak more than one language, an interest in living abroad, and experiences working in another country all were correlated with lower salaries for women, and higher salaries for men. She speculated that the reason was that women were perceived as being less dedicated to their work when they were interested in travel – that there was a hidden assumption that women were interested in travel for its own sake. (I know – I’m talking to the allochthonous geology post-doc here, and I know it’s pretty common for both male and female geologists to be interested in seeing new places. But how do other people see us?)
    So… are women who blog seen as less serious or dedicated scientists? As wasting time that would be better spent writing another grant proposal, or writing another paper? And are they seen as wasting their time more than men are? I don’t know; I’m not a social scientist and don’t even have the intellectual tools to study the question. But I wonder. And I wonder if women worry about the possibility more than men do.
    I mean, I worry about the possibility that blogging will make people take me less seriously, and I’ve got tenure. I probably wouldn’t blog under my real name if my job weren’t secure.

  2. Propter Doc says:

    I blog more about the process of doing science rather than science because I’m not sure how much authority I have to comment on other scientist’s work. I suspect that is partly a gender thing. Most of the blogs I read written by women tend to address specific issues about being a scientist rather than the subject of their study.
    Is a science blog a blog just about science, or about scientists and the process of scientific research?