Women in science and the role of science communicators: How can press officers and science communicators best support women in science?

The panel:

  • Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, University of Oxford 
  • Tom Feilden, Science and Environment Editor on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 
  • Helen Jamison, Head of Media Relations at the Wellcome Trust 
  • Claire Bithell, Head of Media Relations at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, (chair)

Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before: we need more women in science. But what can press officers and science communicators do to support them? Tonight STEMPra, a STEMxPR organisation, hosted the debate.

But it wasn’t really a debate, because it can’t really be a debate, because it would be totally un PC to say you don’t need women in science, and if you thought it you likely wouldn’t go to the Euston Road on a Tuesday evening. It was sharing of best practises- and best opinions.

Who were the panel?

Claire was quick to raise the ‘Hunt’ issue: it may have been way back in June but the saga in Seoul hasn’t be laid to bed. Claire was an artist at school who showed aptitude in chemistry and, despite initial reluctance, continued to complete a PhD. She subconsciously realised academia wasn’t necessarily women friendly and decided it wasn’t for her: now she leads media relations at the institute of cancer research.

Dorothy Bishop went to a mixed school, an all girls Oxford college, started a PhD, read an article saying papers with male authors had more impact than those of their female counterparts, and then submitted all papers with the name D. V. M. Bishop. Prof. Bishop admitted she’s guilty of gender biases too and recommended the work of Virginia Valian, ‘Why so slow?’: who questions why so few women occupy positions of power and prestige. Valiant (+ Bishop) say that biases start because of latent stereotypes are the basis of all society and the cumulative effect of lots of small biases. We’re reluctant to call people up and be seen as ‘feminist’ or ‘pushy’.

Prof. B told the most shocking anecdote of the evening, of sitting on a recruitment panel with senior men interviewing a young woman, who asked ‘sorry it’s awfully hot, can I take off my jacket?’, to whom the man replied ‘you can take off as much as you like!’. We need mechanisms to deal with ‘casual’ ‘everyday’ sexism.

Dorothy has been in the science game for a long time, and says ‘it is changing’- she now finds herself bored when male colleagues endlessly talk about their babies. The woman sitting next to me wrote that as a note in her phone. But they’re not really changing in subjects like physics.

Tom was stellar guest because he sounds like he works for radio 4 (which he does) and he’s a science correspondent for the BBC. He spoke convincingly about the Today show’s efforts to get female scientists to make the voices heard, but that the gender pool their fishing in is very heavily biased. They work with very tight deadlines (for tomorrow’s three hour today show they’ve got 18 minutes timetabled), so when they need an expert, stat, it may be difficult to find a woman who’ll come forward. Quite rightly, he’s adamant that the BBC owe it to the public to present the truth (and not sugarcoat the unbalanced world of science and academia), and to have the best person they can get. Often the BBC want comments from the researchers who did the work and the ‘project lead’ who might be able to gauge the long-term impact of the result: by default these senior roles are full of ‘white, bald, fat, middle-aged men’. He says too that gender has become more of an issue lately: scientists used to be concerned about appearing on the radio because that was for “science celebrities” whereas they were “real academics”.

The audience/ panel/ Tom widely agre that women are much harder to convince: men come forward irrespective of their prior knowledge or expertise, whilst women um and ah, “oh! I don’t know much about this…one or two of my colleagues would be better”. When time’s tight, you’re more likely to go for the person likely to say yes.

Tom wants his daughters to grow up hearing strong, confident women speak with knowledge on the today programme- but that the BBC presents the world as it is. This isn’t a problem with the BBC, it’s a problem with science as a whole.

Can we answer this with targeted media training? 

  • Women are less likely to voice their work and research for fear of being exposed or mocked, or saying something stupid.
  • The audience and panel agree- it can’t be a ‘one size fits all’. It’s not necessarily right or good to make women more like men: it’s not good science to jump up, shout loudest, and air an opinion you don’t necessarily understand just because you’ve been asked.
  • Media training should (probably) be offered for all early-career researchers, and a database of trained science experts (especially women) should be made available to the BBC and the ‘science media centre’. There’s an untapped talent of enthusiastic ‘science capital’, and the country deserves to see it.

Before audience questions, Claire had a few points to make:

  • Is unconscious bias training any good? Should it be ‘rolled-out’?
  • Can we have a database of anonymous scientific experts with media training, equivalent to job adverts and university applications?
  • Can we have an industry uptake of programmes like Athena Swan?
  • If companies and organisations are doing things right Athena Swan/ professional development, they need to promote them.
  • We need to look for evidence of good practise, be inventive and see where it’s going right: countries like Bolivia and Denmark, where flexible working and shared maternity leave lead to a 50-50 work force.
  • The best work will happen when we don’t just have a gender balanced workforce, but a diverse workforce of ethnicities, genders and beliefs.
  • At a recent, similar vibe, ‘Women in Science X STEMPRa’ event for academics, 197 of the audience were women and 3 were men. The only person to get an audience wide applause was one of the male speakers- a chemist from York with evidence of more women making for a better workforce. York’s chemistry department have an Athena Swan gold award. They noticed there were issues for female academics and they changed the rules: they made hours flexible and part-time available for all. Within 10 years York has 50:50 male:female staff and a more highly published and efficient institution. We can’t just make arguments for the sake of making arguments: we need to make them (like we would argue a scientific point) with evidence.

The (mainly female) audience was full of some pretty impressive people who were more than willing to voice their titles, anecdotes and opinions.

In general, there’s mixed opinions on Athena Swan; the application is often the only time of the year academics discuss issues relating to gender diversity, and women on the panel are targeted for things like bake sales or ‘tea and cake’ meetings.

Sarah Hoey from Pint of Science made a very good point she’d noticed after hosting a ‘Change the Numbers’ evening that celebrated women at every stage of their careers. They all listed brilliant male mentors. Perhaps, Sarah remarks, we’re not looking at the right women. The women we should be talking to are the one’s who’ve left.

Liz Harley from Frontline Genomics echoes the rest of the room in saying we need to engage men for a gender equal society.

Dr Indi Ghangrekar from the Daphne Trust, who focus on flexible fellowships for people coming back into work after career breaks, wants their message to be more wide-reaching. They make it possible for men and women to take time out to care for family, overcome and illness or have their own family. Their uptake is 96 % women and 4 %. And people don’t all know about it.

My favourite two points were from people sitting next to each other: Carmel Turner, the Chief Press Officer at the Medical Research Council says that the world won’t be a better place if we populate it with people who can ‘shout the loudest’. It’s not just ‘unwomanly’ to jump to do an interview that you’re not an expert on: it’s ‘not appropriate’. Barnaby Smith, at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (or Herbology as I wrote in my notepad…) says he often spends his time talking men out of doing interviews and trying to convince women to do them. He finds that female scientists (and I’ve experienced this lots) are super keen for things to change, and for ‘affirmative action’, but super reluctant to do anything about it themselves.

The overriding message was we need to encourage people (who want to) to speak up. There needs to be media training for all young scientists, so that the expert opinions heard in the media come from equal numbers of men and women. The next generation of men are different, and it’s not right to tar them all with the  white-bald-fat brush of academics of the past. Organisations, institutes, companies, programmes need to be aware of their intrinsic biasses, and make the best efforts they can to overcome them. Ultimately, we need to be sure that this is something that people actually wants to change: does science want more women? Or is that just the trendy thing to say?

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