I have finally caught up with the debate at ScienceOnline2011 on ‘The Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name’ through watching the video of the session, recently put online. This was the debate that kick-started a lot of discussion on a variety of blogs (including from one of the panel members Kate Clancy) particularly around the combined issues of marketing one’s blogs, pushing oneself forward and asking for retweets through Direct Messaging. This aspect of the discussion prompted my previous post on Unwritten Rules. But here, now that I have been able to follow the full debate, I’d like to revert to the topic of the debate title. I’d also like to encourage others, be they active bloggers or not, and particularly women, to watch the debate and see what chords it strikes.
Rather obviously my own blog is not pseudonymous. I did this deliberately when I set out because I felt it was important to make clear who I was so that people could choose whether they thought my experiences/anecdotes and general thoughts were relevant, convincing or helpful. That I had been knocking around the university system for a while is clearly pertinent to what I write regarding committees and ways of tackling issues scientists, particularly academic scientists, face. Naively, perhaps, I did not think of the downside of identifying myself. Other people’s experiences, as discussed on the video, suggest consequences might include receiving inappropriate, even hateful comments on one’s blog or in emails (including about appearance or other personal matters) or worse what appeared to amount to stalking. Nor did I think about consequences in my job, but then (lucky me) I am not trying to get my foot on the tenure ladder nor am I on tenure track itself. Part of what I wanted to do – in as far as I knew what I was going to blog about when I set out on the enterprise 9 months ago – was to share experiences of progressing through the system, prompted in part by a more junior (female) colleague’s response to something I said in conversation:
You mean that happened to you too?!
In other words, to dispel the illusion that being a professor meant that everything had been plain sailing all the time.
It never occurred to me, as an engineer on the video feared, that this would turn me into a ‘soft skills chick’ who could be looked down on because I wrote on top of my day job. That this is a possible danger was reinforced for me by an intriguing talk Sunetra Gupta gave in Cambridge a couple of days ago for the WiSETI Annual Lecture. Sunetra has succeeded as both a novelist and a zoologist, with different home pages for these two facets of her life. But she stressed that, particularly earlier in her career, she had faced hostility from people who failed to understand how she could try to combine the two strands, and had been advised not to mention the novel-writing when applying for jobs. Scientists seemed to feel that she couldn’t be a successful scientist if she wrote novels, whereas those who approached her from the literary end believed that she couldn’t be a good novelist if she did science all day. Her firm answer was that she had to do both because they were so important to her, but clearly these criticisms discomforted her.
To return to the blogging debate, I entirely understand why some bloggers, male or female, feel it necessary, or at least desirable, to hide their identities. It so happens that my fellow Occam’s Typewriter bloggers are not in this category; we are all identifiable even if I’m the only one unimaginative enough to call my blog by my name; only one of us uses a psuedonym. Since we encompass all stages of the academic career from PhD (Erika Cule) upwards, it isn’t anything as simple as seniority which defines whether or not individulas feel the need to use a pseudonym although, as my comment on tenure track suggests, it is probably easier to be upfront with one’s identity the higher up the ladder one is.
I made two conscious decisions when choosing to use my real name: not to bring my family into the blog, or discuss personal matters; and not to discuss anecdotes in such a way that individuals involved can be identified. I have no desire to enter a blame game when castigating a particular course of action, to name and shame anyone. That serves, in my view, no useful purpose. Other bloggers, male and female, approach these issues in many different ways, depending on their aspirations and motivations.
However, what watching the video taught me is that I have been fortunate. My naivety about identifying myself has paid off, or at least not proved to be a problem, but I did not appreciate what I was doing when I set out. Often, way beyond the specific field of blogging, naivety has advantages. It makes the future less frightening, perhaps enabling one to seize opportunities that if you knew more about you might be less willing to tackle. There is a fine line between courage and foolhardiness when it comes to accepting a challenge. I have always believed (though not always acted upon that belief) that it is the things one doesn’t do that one lives to regret, because one is then left with that lingering suspicion of missing out on something that might have been satisfying or enjoyable – or progressed one’s career. The indicators are that women are more often risk-averse, less adventurous than men, more fearful that if they attempt something new they may fall on their faces and make a fool of themselves – another point the blogging debate touched upon. But throughout our lives, if we play safe, we may never get beyond the ordinary. If we analyse each opportunity to death, do the sums (consciously or otherwise) so that the ‘play safe’ option always wins, then we are defeating ourselves.
As with entering the blogosphere, I suspect I have been far too unwary in many of the decisions I have made during my life. Sometimes I have lived to regret them, but remarkably infrequently. Often I feel that it has been the trivial matters I have agonised over, whereas I have made large leaps of faith without even noticing I was doing so at the time, which probably points to some fundamental failure of internal judgement. But too often individuals, not only women but perhaps more of them than men, don’t feel able to jump off the edge off the cliff believing that their parachute really will open and let them take flight serenely. My advice would be that constantly shivering at the edge will itself be at least as likely, if not more so, to lead to bad outcomes – be it disappointment, resentment or stagnation – than taking the risk that seems so terrifying. Writing a blog under your real name is perhaps a good place to start practicing flying!