On Passion

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.

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31 Responses to On Passion

  1. Jenny says:

    One of the things I find ironic about this is that my original blogpost (Ranks of the Invisible) first posed the question ‘why is there no female Bran Cox’, and when Alom riffed off it for his Guardian piece, he didn’t mention it. From then on, his piece was cited as the primary source of this question and debate (except by you, Athene, for which I’m grateful). Alom is a big fan of mine, so this must have been entirely subconscious. It’s a classic example of one aspect of female invisibility I referred to in my later Nature op-ed, cited above: women saying something and being ignored, and then a man saying the same thing and getting noticed and praised. Until opinionated women’s opinions – be they passionate or charismatic, assertive or aggressive – “stick” in people’s minds, I don’t think much will change.

    • Jenny, I came across your article first and only accidentally came across Alom’s. It seems to me his article is largely about the celeb culture, whereas your point is rather deeper. And I was trying to develop those ideas, trying to rationalise why women might not be seen as ‘suitable’ for science programmes, but fine for arts. I think the point you make about your blog being ‘invisible’ is interesting, although I suppose I would have attributed it to the accessibility of the standard press compared with blogs, rather than your gender. Perhaps that’s just the optimistic interpretation though.

  2. Liz says:

    After your mention of ‘gravitas’ I was going to say that I don’t think that science on tv should be about gravitas, but I think you’ve made that point when you say enthusiasm can make science approachable. I do think that (most) science on tv and in the media should be about making science approachable, and about getting people (non-scientists) excited about it (preferably without undue hype). It’s really quite sad that enthusiasm in women could be seen as less suitable than enthusiasm in men; with all due respect, I hope your hypothesis is wrong(!), although I doubt that’s the case…

    Still, that won’t stop me from being publicly (as public as you can get as an undergrad who dabbles in science outreach) enthusiastic and passionate about science. Recently I’ve been increasingly realising that women in science really do need to stand up and make sure they are heard – posts like Jenny Rohn’s, and the responses to this Q&A have made clear the importance of speaking up. It might not be sufficient to change things, but it’s definitely necessary, and I hadn’t fully appreciated that before.

    • Yes we should stand up and speak out undoubtedly. But, as with all unconscious bias, it is worth pointing out explicitly that it may be lurking in the minds of producers, because when it is pointed out people can factor it into their decision-making processes. As long as it remains unconscious there is no way of changing things.

  3. Kausik Datta says:

    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.

    There is an inherent problem with this approach. The success or failure of one woman, that, too, based on viewer ratings, is too flimsy an metric that wouldn’t lead to any meaningful conclusion. It needs to be persistent and relentless, like a movement that can’t be ignored, the same way some women have carved a niche for themselves in media. I am thinking Rachel Maddow, Katie Curic, or various talk-show host comediennes, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes or Sarah Silverman (Sorry about the US-centric names!), women who are intelligent, accomplished, well-aware and completely comfortable with themselves.

    Which is why I like Jenny’s other idea a lot, encouraging women to be vocal, and consistently, not just about things they care about, but also about representing themselves as the professionals that they are. Just as the voice of women needs to be heard loud and clear, a lot of negative perceptions about women, propagated by popular media stereotypes, need to be cleared up.

    The last statement in Jenny’s comment needs to be – repeatedly – QFT:

    Until opinionated women’s opinions – be they passionate or charismatic, assertive or aggressive – “stick” in people’s minds, I don’t think much will change.

  4. Jenny says:

    Athene – it’s not about accessibility, because A. saw my blog before he wrote his own piece – he tweeted it. I just assume my phrase ‘the female Brian Cox’ stuck in his head without his realizing where he got it. I see this a lot in group meetings and committees – riffs that get attributed to the person with the most gravitas.

    I do know that your post was about something deeper, though, and I think that it’s interesting point that ‘passion’ might be inappropriately feminine. Now I am deeply curious if my own talks (which tend to be quite enthusiastic) are being undermined by my enthusiasm. Something I never worried about before! Someone should let me know if this is the case. :-)

    • I meant that in the wider readership Alom’s article may have been more accessible, not so much that he hadn’t seen yours in the first place. But yes, it is interesting he didn’t acknowledge that your writing might have sparked off his train of thought – as it certainly did for me.

      I am sorry if I have given you pause for thought about your enthusiasm. I feel strongly that we should just go on being who we are enthusiastic, passionate or whatever. Being true to oneself is hugely important. It would be good to get some further responses, perhaps from men who might agree or disagree with my hypothesis. I note that Stephen Curry (also of Occam’s Typewriter fame) has said via twitter that he has thought of women as charming rather than charismatic. It would be helpful to get some further thoughts on these aspects – in more than 140 characters!

  5. Mary Beard says:

    Hi Athene. If you want to see what we are up against, take a look at A A Gill’s review of my programme in the Sunday Times. I cant send you a link as it is behind the paywall.
    I stopped reading it carefully… but it was full of stuff about my appearance, my teeth, my clothes.
    Quite happy to take criticism (look if you do a tv programme that’s the deal), but just laying into how you look. I thought we had left that behind.

    • I see Gill states – by way of justification for his diatribe about you – ‘it’s not sexist’. I suppose it is progress that he even thinks it necessary to protest too much by this disclaimer. Shirley Williams, I think it was, who complained no male politician’s hair would be commented on as much as hers. I guess we haven’t left it all behind, but I’m not sure that rationalises why women are not fronting major science programmes, merely reinforces the message that it isn’t an even playing field in the media yet.

  6. cromercrox says:

    @Mary – well, what do you expect from A A Gill?

    There have been female presenters of science programmes – I remember Judith Hann from Tomorrow’s World, very far from the dumb blonde stereotype. And there are, and have been, other female presenters on TV and radio who substitute journalistic toughness for fluffiness – Kate Adie, Kirsty Wark, the late Mary Goldring. So it can be done. It could be that these presenters tend to cater for a relatively well-educated audience. The breakfast/daytime Chav-o-rama slots are still full of glamour-pseuds.

    • Yes @cromercrox, there undoubtedly have been female presenters: Vivienne Parry and Maggie Adherin Pocock, to name a couple more. But as both @JennyRohn and @AlomShaha said in their earlier articles, they haven’t gone on to front major science programmes on TV in the way that Brian Cox has (and more than one, I gather he has a new series coming out). And that was the original question posed, and the motivation for my post trying to dig a bit deeper. I don’t think it is conscious sexism, I think it is more subtle than that. Hence my questions about the parsing of charisma, which @Stephen’s reply touches on.

      • cromercrox says:

        I hadn’t replied re the ‘charisma’ point as I wanted to bat it around inside my brain for a bit. And, well, I don’t think I’d ever describe a woman as ‘charismatic’. It just seems … wrong. I hadn’t thought of it before, but you’re right – ‘charisma’ seems to be a male-only trait. However, it doesn’t apply to any male. I wouldn’t say Brian Cox is charismatic.

        Are there any adjectives associated with personality that one would associate only withe females? Charming, delightful, witty, words like that can be applied to both sexes. One could, at a stretch, even make ‘motherly’ apply to males. Especially if they are sea horses.

        • I think the adjectives applied to women only would tend to be along the lines of sweet and glamourous, which have little to do with a woman’s intelligence or even ability to present intelligently (not the same thing!). I would not equate charming with charismatic either, there is definitely something more substantial in charismatic; it is charm plus more. So if charming is seen as the nearest female equivalent to charismatic there already is a problem. Can you articulate why it is wrong for a woman to be charismatic? And what is your reaction to my comment about the use of the word ‘passionate’?

          • cromercrox says:

            Can you articulate why it is wrong for a woman to be charismatic?

            I didn’t say that it was wrong, only that it felt wrong, like, somehow, it didn’t fit. Goodness knows why. I’d never thought of it before.

            And what is your reaction to my comment about the use of the word ‘passionate’?

            I think you’re wrong. Men are described as passionate as much as women are. I know it’s an adjective I use in book reviews to describe forceful styles of writing, irrespective of the gender of the author.

        • Owen says:

          I don’t think charisma is exclusively male or female. Sarah Palin is frequently described as charismatic, for example, and not in the religious sense.

          The key difference for me is the connotations the term brings with it, which do seem to differ by who is described. Describing a man has having charisma brings with it ideas of “fakeness”, of superimposed twinkles in the eye and sparkling white teeth: think Tony Blair (or, if you prefer. Kenneth Branagh’s Gilderoy Lockhart). By contrast describing a woman as charismatic seems to me a much more straightforward statement of presence, and power to persuade and inspire.

          • Interesting – I would attribute charming as the fake, and charismatic as having more substance (and Tony Blair as neither). But you are the first person to accept a woman can be charismatic, and indeed appear to think you’ve heard some described as such. Encouraging!

  7. Stephen says:

    @Athene – if I give you more than 140 characters, there’s no guarantee it’ll make any more sense.

    The points that struck me most in your very interesting post were the ones about unconscious bias and whether or not women, as opposed to men, are perceived as charismatic. You said you’d not heard of women being described as charismatic and it made me think that I didn’t really think of the women I know in that way. Unconscious bias? I think it might be even though I hope I can assure you I have a high opinion of many women’s charm and intelligence.

    A couple of quick thoughts: the designation of some men as charismatic may be a bit of a cliché; or rather, the judgement of some men as such may be given lightly, without too much thought. So it’s not necessarily a adjective to strive for.

    The other thought – not altogether frivolous (I think!)- is to do with the “When Harry met Sally” type of argument about the ancient impediment of ‘normal’ relations between men and women, which may infect (some) men’s assessments.

    To return to the main point, I think is it vital that women scientists seize opportunities to put themselves out there. I agree with you that there is still a painful lack of opportunities due to flawed perceptions. Those sorts of things won’t change overnight, but with you and Jenny on the case, it can only be a matter of time.

    I do hope I haven’t disgraced myself.

  8. cromercrox says:

    @Stephen – I think you got emasculated in mid-sentence.

    • Stephen says:

      Ah – no it was a left-over copy of the start of an earlier paragraph (which I have now removed). One of the downsides of trying to comment on a iPad, which doesn’t permit re-sizing of text-entry boxes.

  9. cromercrox says:

    Thinking about the question phrased in your answer to me:

    ‘But as both @JennyRohn and @AlomShaha said in their earlier articles, they haven’t gone on to front major science programmes on TV in the way that Brian Cox has (and more than one, I gather he has a new series coming out)’

    Well, that’s a terribly unscientific complaint. Sure, some women haven’t gone on to front science shows on TV. But lots of men haven’t either. If you are going to suggest that sexism at work, you have to control for other factors, such as being too fat, too old, too unattractive (all of which apply to me) and most probably not being in the right place at the right time.

    • OK, so that was unscientific response, and numbers are going to be small so never statistically significant but….I don’t think you can bring in a whole lot of negative adjectives just to imply there may not be an underlying trend of women being even more under-represented than necessary, and that this might be due to unconscious bias. You’re missing the point of all the previous articles I mention as well as this one if you think that that is an adequate rebuttal! Are you implying you believe women are represented appropriately?

  10. cromercrox says:

    Depends what you mean by ‘appropriately’, doesn’t it. I am against all forms of discrimintion, even (or especially) positive discrimination.

    I should say that I find this quest to tease out various kinds of ‘unconscious’ bias inappropriate, in the following way – that there are plenty of minorities who are actively discriminated against in academia, and the discrimination is quite plain, even before one starts to weigh such subtleties as unconcious bias in the use of adjectives.

    I’ll only start to take such things seriously, for example, once British academia has addressed its own deep-rooted antisemitism.

    I was part of the founding team that helped set up the ‘Engage’ website that documents antisemitism in left-wing academia in Britain. The examples are too many to enumerate. See http://engageonline.wordpress.com/

    I expect that many other minority communities might say the same, but as I don’t know, I shouldn’t say anything on their behalf.

    • For the record let me say that I too am against all forms of discrimination including positive discrimination.

      However I am not going to argue two wrongs make a right, one shouldn’t look at one form of ‘njustice and think one can ignore others. I cannot comment on whether there is much anti-semitism around me because – as you say – one can’t speak for other minorities communities (I do know a senior Jewish colleague of mine once told me when people disagreed with him he tried not to think it was because he was a Jew; in fact up to that point I hadn’t realised he was one, but I think it illustrates he didn’t think he was the victim of explicit anti-Semitism in this university).

      But if there is, it doesn’t make worrying about unconscious bias inappropriate, merely one strand of things to be examined and fought against – and women, after all aren’t a minority, they are ~50% of the population, if not in my subject at my university. So I stand by what I said. I believe unconscious bias is an issue that needs to be brought out as much as possible into the open. And so should all forms of explicit discrimination. You fight your fight and I’ll fight mine, but we shouldn’t fight each other.

  11. cromercrox says:

    I was at a pro-Israel demo in Trafalgar Square at a time when problems in the Middle East were spilling over into physical attacks on Jews.

    You’ll remember that this was at a time of anti-Israel boycotts spearheaded by senior scientists such as Pat Bateson, Colin Blakemore and Richard Dawkins, and during which Sally Hunt, leader of a trade union representing academics, disported herself in a Palestinian flag. This anti-Israel invective spilled over quite frequently into antisemitism (see my earlier link). Richard Dawkins’ description of the way Jewish opinion was organized were quite shocking in this context. http://blogs.nature.com/henrygee/2007/10/08/speechless – a case of unconscious bias, maybe?

    When I corresponded privately with Pat Bateson on this, he aired my correspondence in public in the Guardian without consulting me, and did so in a way that emphasized my Jewishness in a most unpleasant way (the Guardian printed an apology, but only to the extent that my permission should have been sought to publish the correspondence). http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/dec/12/highereducation.uk

    While I was at the demo, you could clear hear the shouts of the counter-demonstrators to ‘Kill The Jews’.

    Now, I don’t know about you, but to me and everyone else present the bias there was conscious, there was no attempt to use the usual fig-leaf that criticizing Israel is not the same thing as antisemitism, and no adjectives were used whatsoever. To any person who has their priorities right, campaigns against his kind of conscious bias mean a great deal more than splitting adjectives in search of unconscious bias.

    I don’t wish to hijack your thread, but I don’t see any evidence of demonstrators wanting to boycott women academics, or kill them. It’s not a question of fighting our own battles, but a failure of one of us to put things in perspective, and that person isn’t me.

    • @cromercrox I understand that there is a difference and I would not want to put your in-your-face experience into the same category as what many women face day on day in subtle ways. However, I do think you are hijacking the thread. You know I am not attempting to minimise what you describe, and it seems unnecessary therefore to reiterate your feeling that what I have written – and many others have said before – is not worth stating or pursuing and I haven’t got things in perspective. There are many injustices, many people killed in unjust ways around the world; indeed many women killed in unjust ways simply for being a woman (I did sign the recent Times letter about Ashtiani by the way). And there are many people whose lives are significantly affected by what you think is unimportant, be it unconscious bias or anything else. You are a blogger too, so leave me to blog about things I care about and I’ll leave you to fight for what you believe is right. You possibly are making the assumption that if I blog about this it means I don’t care about other things too – but that would be an assumption. I don’t see why you need to attempt to trivialise this matter just because there are other matters that you care about more. I consider this debate finished on this blog – or at least I won’t respond further even if you do.

      • cromercrox says:

        Well, it’s your blog, and your prerogative. However, I do think that discussions about perceived sexism in science tend to result in a kind of futile cycle, largely because all the commenters agree with the person posting, and there is very little reference to any view that might differ from it.

  12. Becky says:

    I don’t think that the issues surrounding women speaking from a position of authority are peculiar to science. They are relevant to women everywhere, whether in, for example, academia, politics or management. Women who speak forcefully are often, perhaps unconsciously, seen to be somehow losing control. This is the issue behind the agression/assertiveness point, and also why being told that you speak passionately (which I have too) contains at least a hint of disapproval. I think it’s very likely that there is a link here to the pitch of the female voice: a lack of gravitas, possibilities of sounding ‘shrill’ in debate and coming across as anything but charismatic.

    I am intruigued, but concerned, that a suggested female version of being charismatic should be charming. Charming is all very nice, and everything, but hardly very stimulating.

  13. Jenny says:

    Anyone interested in an empirical meta-review of the scientific evidence for unconscious bias against female scientists using the peer-reviewed literature are encouraged to read an absolutely riveting book “Why So Slow” by Virginia Valian. The case for “preceived” sexism is pretty water-tight. Even if you already suspected as much, what’s nice about the book is that it provides the rationales behind the behavior, and really makes you think – even about your own assumptions.

    I for one welcome any opportunity to discuss these issues – it’s very helpful for me to hear of others’ experiences. So thanks Athene for the thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for this Jenny, and your emphasis that this isn’t about ”perceived’ sexism; it is all too real, unfortunately. It may not lead to loss of life, but it most certainly can lead to loss of livlihood when women give up the unequal fight if they find themselves in too hostile hostile an environment. It certainly contributes to the leaky pipeline which leads to loss of talent – and that’s bad for the economy.

      I have found all the work about unconscious bias fascinating because we are all guilty of it in some shape or form. I’ve admitted my own failings in that direction on this blog before. It is why I always point people at the Project Implicit Tests, so that they can see where their own weaknesses lie. We can all do better!

  14. Ursula Martin says:

    For a little unscientific light relief and escape from wrapping the Christmas presents try google – Mary Beard wins on charisma!

    Lisa Jardine is a historian of science, and Chair HFEA, and has done a number of scientific radio and TV programmes.

    “mary beard” charismatic 59,400 hits
    “mary beard” passionate 41,500 hits

    “brian cox” charismatic 356,000
    “brian cox” passionate 602,000

    “lisa jardine” charismatic 6,880
    “lisa jardine” passionate 25,700

    “amanda vickery” charismatic 2,280
    “amanda vickery” passionate 9,550

  15. OK I’m wrong: Mary Beard, as a woman, is more charismatic than passionate. Brian Cox, conversely, is more passionate than charismatic. Google proves it and (that particular part of) my hypothesis must therefore bite the dust. In fact it would appear the internet rates everyone as more passionate than charismatic except Mary. I hope, Mary, that makes up for AA Gill’s concentration on your appearance! But that of course assumes you would rather be described as charismatic than passionate; maybe I’m inflicting my own views on you.