In the past few weeks there have been a number of articles commenting on the lack of women fronting up science on TV. First there was Jenny Rohn writing on ‘In which I Contemplate the Ranks of the Invisible’, quickly followed by Alom Shaha in the Guardian on ‘Where’s the Female Brian Cox?’ (to which I responded Do we Need a Female Brian Cox? , which provoked a lot of comment in the twittersphere tending to agree with me that it wasn’t a vital step to encourage girls into science). More recently Jenny Rohn wrote about why ‘Women Scientists Must Speak Up’ wanting to encourage young women to practice making themselves heard, to prepare for what she terms punditry.
Jenny in particular has identified a number of possible reasons for the absence of women in the science media, ranging from lack of self-confidence to the feeling that public debate, with its potential for cut and thrust, is not palatable to them. But she also implies that there is unconscious and unintended sexism occurring, when producers are looking for people to front their programmes, quoting one TV producer saying that the public wouldn’t accept science if presented by “a young, blonde girl” who was under consideration. So if young blondes aren’t suitable, are older women, or is one then up against the ageism the BBC has been charged with in the case of newsreaders such as Moira Stuart? Certainly the BBC has recently been willing to get ‘mature’ women to present major programmes in arts subjects: the historian Amanda Vickery being At Home with the Georgians, and my Cambridge colleague Mary Beard considering Pompeii, both being broadcast during this month. So it would appear there is something peculiar to the way science ‘needs’ to be presented – in the eyes of a TV producer – which women, of any age, appear to ‘lack’ (note the inverted commas).
Since, as Jenny has said, there are plenty of women with appropriate skills and enthusiasm to take on the media challenge (though obviously fewer than men) perhaps there is something in the way they speak which implies to the producer a lack of gravitas, or a presentation style which isn’t believed to mesh with weighty matters. Is this some hark back to the original 16th century ideas of Francis Bacon that science is all about the mastery of man [sic] over nature, with implications of domination and control? This underlying theme of aggression pervades much of the language of early science writing; power was seen to be at the heart of science. This view was still present well into the 20th century (at least). If such an attitude towards the underlying scientific method lurks in the producer’s mind, no wonder a feminine face might not fit their bill: hard science would then be unable to be presented by the soft face of a woman since the subliminal message of male domination over nature would be missing
This effect looks to be another version of unconscious bias, that uncomfortable phenomenon identified by so many authors in their discussion of why numbers of women rising through the scientific ranks remain so low. In which case, the exhortations Jenny presents encouraging women to stand up and speak out will be insufficient. We need to challenge the assumptions about how science can be presented – as well as simply identify the appropriate media-savvy and microphone-comfortable women to stand up in front of the camera with the swagger and style of a celebrity, which also seems to be a sina qua non.
I would like to suggest one particular form in which unconscious bias presents itself in this context, in perceptions about style of presentation. Not about dress (we don’t need to consider hemlines or hairstyles here), but about verbal style. My hypothesis is that there are male and female adjectives to describe speaking styles, akin to the well known pairing ‘men are assertive, women are aggressive’. Here I would propose ‘men are charismatic, women are passionate’. Have you ever heard of a woman being described as charismatic? Because, when I think about it, I don’t think I have, and yet it is always seen as such a desirable attribute in a public speaker. But, an enthusiastic woman who talks forcefully and fluently about her science is liable to be labeled with the word ‘passionate’ – I know I am, and I have grown to hate it. I shouldn’t, it isn’t in itself a bad term, but one knows that in the context what was meant was that I wasn’t quite lady-like, that as a (female) scientist I should be moderate but I actually looked as if I had fun with what I was doing and it was excessive. The Victorians certainly believed enthusiasm was most improper in a young girl, it was unseemly to be keen about anything rather than act merely demure, and I fear this attitude unconsciously lingers. So, if I am viewed as passionate I am being marked down for simply enjoying my science; yet conversely and perversely, if the Brian Cox’s on TV demonstrate their own enthusiasm, this is seen as a plus by making science approachable.
However, until we have an Amanda Vickery in science stacked up against Brian Cox, we won’t know what the viewing audience really wants. The producers may be making entirely erroneous decisions about who can ‘sell’ the science by eliminating half the population, if not half the scientists. As scientists we should stand up and require evidence-based television productions, so – as Jenny said – let us do the experiment of having a mainstream science series fronted by a woman. Then we can judge the success of the experiment from the ratings.