What can be done to render women in science less invisible? A few women may stand out from the crowd, both historically and at the present time, but the list of women scientists most people – by which I mean other scientists as well as the general public – are able to name tends to be remarkably short. I’ve written a couple of pieces elsewhere which touch on this theme recently addressing very different aspects of this problem, although their more-or-less simultaneous timing was unplanned and uncoordinated. The question of this invisibility is nothing new; what matters is what can be done to change the situation.
The first piece, which appeared in Nature, related to the well-documented Royal Society Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Many people have written about this event in the broadsheets as well as elsewhere (see for example here and here). The occasion was a good opportunity to take some small steps to redress the balance of biographies on Wikipedia, and to give a few more women (15 I believe) the opportunity to get to grips with being a Wikipedia editor in the hopes that they will continue to contribute or expand articles about unsung scientific heroines on Wikipedia in the future. In the case of this online encyclopaedia, the challenge seems to arise from a combination of the vast majority of ‘editors’ apparently being male and the low visibility of the relatively small numbers of women who were able to make a contribution to SET subjects in one way or another historically. The headline to my piece ‘Throw off the Cloak of Invisibility’ – chosen by the Nature sub-editors – shines a light on the problem. Women are too often overlooked and such positive action as the Edit-a-thon is just one way of trying to improve the situation.
One consequence of this article appearing, is that I have been emailed directly by various people with issues relating to the piece. One writer – Jevin West - in particular drew my attraction to a project analysing the ‘gender gap’ in publishing, which has a write-up here. Analysis has been carried out for all the publications held in JStor, looking at the over- (or under-) representation of women in different fields, and their place in the author list. Such work could be seen as providing a basis to identify some of the names for women who might deserve Wikipedia entries but who have previously been overlooked.
However, my own view is that we need to do much more than worry about women from the past on Wikipedia, because by and large these are unlikely to inspire the current generation of young women contemplating careers in science. We need to identify living women role models and celebrate their successes; we must continue to press conference organisers not to tolerate all (or predominantly) male slates of speakers, unless there is some very compelling and unusual reason; and we need to get more women scientists into high profile presenting roles on TV and ensure that the Science Media Centre has as many women as possible signed up to provide expert opinions to the media.
Secondly, SpotOn London – which used to be known as Science Online – is coming up in about 10 days time in London. One of the panels I will be involved with is also concerned with women’s visibility, in this case specifically with how to use Social Media to help increase it. Organised by that brave couple Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli – who also organise the Soapbox Science event on the Embankment I wrote about before – this session explicitly looks at ‘Improving Visibility of Female Scientists Online‘. Along with Judith Willetts and Martin Robbins, I will be participating in a panel discussion on this topic, but additionally a wider group of us are writing blogs on the subject through the SpotOn website. My own piece looked at how I use Twitter to disseminate information about #womeninscience activities. I point you in that direction to see how I went from being opposed to the very idea of Twitter to a convert in a very short space of time, and why I find it a useful adjunct to this blog. Others have written on the SpotOn site about how it is good to toss one’s impostor syndrome aside and start blogging, and how social media can reach out around the world when travel is limited. By the time of the actual London meeting it is hoped there will be a broad-ranging set of posts illustrating different aspects of how online media can be a female scientist’s best friend. A set of resources are being pulled together to go with this Womeninscience session. (The other panel I’m involved with looks at how to fit public engagement into your scientific career, and fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn will also be on the panel, as well as Anne Osterrieder and Brian Wecht)
So, these two pieces relate to a couple of occasions where the low visibility of women in science is being recognized and discussed. But it is always important to ensure that one looks for constructive ways to move forward, and moaning over what has gone wrong in the past is certainly not particularly constructive. So let me end this post, not with considering the past low profile of women, but looking again at how to celebrate and empower women scientists. For this let me turn to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, which has just put out a call for names to be considered for their so-called Powerlist, with a plan to rank the ‘100 most powerful women in the UK’. We should ensure this list contains a good number of scientists, engineers, computer scientists and so on (in other words STEM professionals) to remind people – young women in particular, or possibly their parents – that science is a suitable, rewarding and important career for women. This is an occasion where the community can do their bit to make sure the women scientists are not invisible, overwhelmed by TV personalities who cook or celebs from the Soaps. There are better – or at least a wider selection of – role models for our daughters to consider than those, but only if we remember to nominate them. So…..go to it!