To Blog or Not to Blog

The challenge of using social media as a way to overcome the frequent invisibility of women in science was at the heart of the recent #SoLo12 Women In Science session organised by Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli (see the Storify here). Their aim for the session was to discuss how social media could help bring women out of the shadows; the collection of blogs prepared in parallel with the physical session,which have been written by women at all stages of life, highlight some of the positives as well as the challenges of using these media to raise one’s profile (they are all listed under ‘News’ on this site).

Looking back, it is painfully clear that women’s place in the history of science is small, and is perceived to be even smaller than it actually was because people too easily downplayed the contributions that were made.  A series of recent events have focussed on the historical situation, such as those at the Royal Society (covered here by Ed Yong)  and a recent meeting of the Women’s History Network (described here). Lurking in the opening sentence of this paragraph is also that only-too-familiar spirit of unconscious bias, so that where women did play a part, their contribution was often minimised by those around them who were perhaps unused to crediting women with anything beyond being decorative. In consequence, their contributions have never re-emerged from the shadows. But, what is past is past and today we need to worry not only about the women already contributing to fantastic discoveries in science, but those who are just setting out on a path through scientific education and their early careers. We need to make sure that that low visibility does not persist.

Hence the need for the #SoLo12WIS session last weekend which took up these themes and considered issues such as:

  • Are there risks in openly identifying yourself as female?
  • How can social media help raise your profile?
  • What are the wider benefits for your career?
  • How do you begin?
  • What is the purpose of blogging?

If you want some excellent reading about why women should be using social media, and what they need to be aware of before embarking on such an adventure, I strongly recommend you browse the diverse collection of views represented by the various associated blogs. One of the more recent ones comes from the US-based FemaleScienceProfessor, who was one of my own early role models as I set out on my blogging career.  She it was who introduced me to the idea of blogging as a form of online mentoring, an idea I love; an idea which also provides yet another reason for women to jump in and blog, since your reach can be much wider (if unknown) than face-to-face mentoring can provide.

Women may indeed be more prone than men to see risks in writing under their own names, and in some cases clearly with extremely good reason (Rebecca Watson’s name was mentioned in this context at the session; she has been the subject of much disgusting vitriol). But women may also simply be too risk-averse to start blogging, fearing less concretely that they ‘aren’t up to it’ or ‘they wouldn’t know what to say’. I know some women, at all stages of their careers, who have expressed anxieties along these lines and to some extent the only way to overcome it is to try something out. The blog can always softly and suddenly vanish away, like a boojum, if it turns out not to work for you – but you will never know if you don’t try.  Based on what I’ve learned in the last 2+ years of blogging I would say benefits I hadn’t seen coming include that I’ve improved and diversified my writing skills and found a brand new set of lovely online acquaintances, as well as had a lot of fun.

However, there are other subtle questions that underlie the question of to blog or not to blog. If you start a blog, what then? How do you get a readership? Do you have to do that dreadful thing ‘self-promote’ in order to make sure people read it and is that anathema for many would-be bloggers (as for women in other instances as I discussed here)?  What follows from here on is my own personal experience; maybe others will not relate to this but, as a senior woman who is expected to be past the stage of nerves and reticence, let me speak out. I found it painful to self-promote at the outset, but I have more or less got inured to doing so through Twitter. But as recent experiences showed me, there is more to it than just that, and support from friends is vital in keeping fighting the good fight.

At this point let me introduce a different thread of recent events in the blogosphere: The Good Thinking Society’s Science Blog prize, announced a few weeks back. This is, as far as I know, the first of its kind in the UK and with a prize of £1000 not to be sniffed at. Entry was by self-nomination, so it did not need the ‘great and good’ to nominate you; it needed you to have enough chutzpah yourself to apply. The shortlist was announced this past week and I am thrilled, not to mention surprised, to find myself on it. I am also delighted to find there are several other women on it: Dorothy Bishop, Suzi Gage and Kat Arney, this last as part of a trio of bloggers writing for Cancer Research.  I remarked on this visible female presence on Twitter, commenting that in the light of the anxieties expressed about blogging at #solo12wis it was good to see women coming through on the shortlist. Explicitly I said

In light of issues raised at #solo12wis great that 3/10 women on Good Thinking Society’s Science Blog Prize shortlist

(which was inaccurate given the Cancer Research’s Blog involved Kat Arney, although I hadn’t twigged that at the moment of tweeting, so the number should have been 4 – to make it 4/12)

But it’s encouraging anyhow given some offline discussions I’d had with reticent women

To which Ed Yong (another name on the 10-strong shortlist) replied

As someone who acts as a role model for said reticent women, i think you count twice ;-)

Which was very kind of him, but based on an entirely false assumption in this case as I pointed out

Thanks but who said I wasn’t one of them? I had to be encouraged to apply …

A point confirmed by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore   and Uta Frith

I can confirm reticence was demonstrated and persuasion was necessary.

What is the moral of this story? I think it’s at least twofold. Firstly, the support – or mentoring – of others is hugely important for us all, and can be the make-or-break difference in some instances and not just in this narrow sphere of blogging. Sarah-Jayne and Uta approached several women bloggers they knew to encourage us to apply, recognizing all the factors I described previously that tend to hold women back from ‘self-promotion’. It was not merely in the abstract I mentioned in that earlier post, that the blogging prize’s rules of self-nomination might deter some women: I had felt that barrier myself.

I am sure it doesn’t need to be women encouraging women, as it was in this case; it wouldn’t surprise me to know Ed Yong himself had done something similar with his circle of female blogger friends. What is needed is the encouragement that one isn’t behaving as a ‘naughty little girl’, impertinently pushing oneself forward and stepping out of line. Early societal messages received by young girls somehow teach so many that it is not appropriate to self-promote, although it probably isn’t consciously imposed or even consciously received.  I certainly know that I felt very uncomfortable filling in a self-nomination form that required me to write down why I thought my blog was so great, and I wouldn’t have done it without encouragement.

The second ‘moral’ is equally important: just because one is senior does not preclude feelings of anxiety, reticence or general lack of self-confidence lurking beneath what may look like a calm exterior. I’ve said this previously about impostor syndrome; what I’m describing here is different but it is a close relation of that complaint. Those setting out on their careers should realise one of the key differences between themselves and those further up the ladder may be that you learn to control and mask anxieties as time passes, not that they vanish overnight on some joyous occasion. I would guess that some specific fears probably do fade away but others never do. Comparing myself with those around me, I suspect that every individual has a different spectrum of activities that still seem terrifying long after others have paled into insignificance. I would also speculate that women are no different from men in this, but women are more likely to allow themselves to be paralysed or held back by these anxieties whereas, the encouragement to risk-taking to which boys and young men are often exposed may make it easier for them to trample on their fears. So, anxious women out there, I guess my take-home message is

‘find supporters, take risks and stamp on those fears’

Advice I will continue to try to follow myself.

Note This post is cross-posted on the SpotOn website here.

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20 Responses to To Blog or Not to Blog

  1. Dean Burnett says:

    Everything about this post strikes true for me (apart from the gender-relevant elements, which I obviously haven’t experienced). As someone from a completely non-academic background (first in my family to even finish GCSEs) from a provincial area with a rather powerful Welsh accent, I often find myself baffled as to my continued presence in the world of academia.

    This is probably why I’ve ended up focussing/promoting the light-hearted/humorous side of science and related areas; I’m genuinely interested about this, but took me a long time to think people would take me seriously on actual scientific matters. Still haven’t shaken that off, although whether this is because it’s a continuing neuroses or I’ve invested myself too much in my ‘eccentric’ persona is another matter.

    It was/is also very strange for me to see myself on the blog prize shortlist. I initially refused to enter specifically because of the self-nominating aspect, as that’s something I feel very uncomfortable about. But then I got virtually shouted at to do so within hours of the deadline by people who’s opinion I value, so I just sucked it up and did it. I’m hoping they saved my submission and will send me a copy, I remember the reluctance to self-nominate being made clear throughout.

  2. Suzi Gage says:

    Thanks for writing this post Athene, I too recognise a lot of what you have described. Although, if I am honest, not so much in terms of self nomination for this prize. Maybe it’s because (as a relatively new blogger) I assumed I had little chance of being shortlisted (though naturally I’m delighted I was wrong there). However, I didn’t tell anyone I had put myself forward, and wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so. I also got told off for not being more vocal on twitter once I had been shortlisted, and that was something I found very hard to do; felt like arrogance and crowing,

    Only on Friday I experienced all the reticence you refer to, when I had a job interview. I find it incredibly hard to self promote in that circumstance, it’s horrible to try and justify why you are a valuable candidate, feels exactly as you describe: ‘the naughty little girl stepping out of line’.

    I completely agree that support networks are valuable, and am very lucky (as it sounds like you are) to have great ones.

  3. Bob O'H says:

    The blog can always softly and suddenly vanish away, like a boojum, if it turns out not to work for you

    Ah, if it disappears like a boojum, that means there’s not enough snark.

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  5. Uta Frith says:

    Hi Athene, thank you for another great piece. It is rare to read such straight and honest words about the issue of self promotion and running a blog for naturally reticent women. But of course, honest words are exactly the point of your blog.

    Here is a suggestion about making self-promotion more acceptable to those of us who found out that the detection and reward of merit by itself is a fairy tale. First, we have to acknowledge that detecting and rewarding merit cannot be an anonymous and automatic process – it is a social process. I believe his process needs not just one person but a whole chain of people, including institutions, and usually it takes a very long time. It is never sufficient for you to be a promoter, whether for yourself or another. So self promotion is only a minor part of the process. It is not self aggrandisement, not boasting, and not self-glorification, which would defeat the purpose. It is a hard thing to do. This is why mutual support is such a boon.

    • Uta
      You ought to be right but there is one hard thing in what you say. Perceptions play such a key role in whether people are seen as ‘good’, ‘top of their field’ etc and, like the Emperor’s New Clothes, these perceptions may be based on little. But it is hard to burst the bubble and if people self-promote (i.e. are ‘alpha male’ types, allowing for the fact this can describe women too) often that goes unchallenged. So when is one righ to self-promote and when not? Having strong support groups who can prick your ego can be as important as having ones to boost it in my view. Honest and objective evaluation in other words, but I’m not sure it’s always prevalent in academia and once someone has a reputation of being so excellent, it tends to remain unchallenged even if no longer justified.

  6. J Elliott says:

    I am a string-player: You need to practise frequently, often without any feeling of making progress, and keep on doing this, before you can acquire such a skill. I suppose that this attitude is a main factor for me in not throwing in the Twitter towel: It’s like getting blood out of a stone. Finding micro-blogging like that, investing time writing a proper blog seems less attractive.

  7. I remain uncomfortable with the idea of self-promotion, from which I am usually saved by having nothing to promote..! (Or at least nothing recent).

    I think the basic message of blogging remains ‘Do it if you’ve got something to say, and now’. You may not always have something to say – or you may run out of stuff to say – but when you do have a point to make, it is nice to get it out there, and blogging does impart some immediacy. So the primary reason is to get it said. If you did it entirely to self-promote, it would pall very quickly.

    Personally I’ve mostly run out of new stuff to say, which is why I’ve pretty much stopped blogging. I’m in some ways the opposite of J Elliott above – I find Twitter is about my speed these days, but the effort required to craft a blog piece feels rather too much. And one feels less guilty repeating oneself if it only takes 140 characters to do it. But I think a lot of blogs do have a clear kind of life arc, or span – for instance, many of the medical bloggers I started off reading 4 or 5 years ago have stopped blogging altogether. Those I talked to about it all mentioned the feeling that they were repeating themselves as a reason for slowing down or stopping.

    Anyway, congrats on the nomination. One good thing about the list from my perspective is its balance, not just having male and female bloggers, but also a ‘spread’ from students to postdocs to Professors, and including both lab people and ex-lab folk. ‘Anyone can blog’ is, I think, a good message to get out.

    • The initial description of the blogging prize said they wanted everyone from teenagers to senior profs to apply and it would seem they got their wish. I agree, it is a splendidly diverse field. It is just a shame neither Ed Yong nor I can attend the prize-giving next Sunday. It sounds like it will be an excellent evening all round and I would have liked to meet everyone else.

  8. Dave H says:

    I’m an early career academic. I guess my two questions about blogging (I don’t presently) are– what the heck would I talk about and, mainly, how on earth does one find any time in the midst of lectures, tutorials, proposals, papers, student supervision and trying not too work (too much) in evenings and weekends (this is a big problem with academia by the way, working like a dog when actually we should be switching off and spending time with family friends etc). I also have reticence about self promotion, and I’m a bloke.

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  11. Neurotaylor says:

    Thanks for the encouraging words, everyone. I only started blogging (and Twitter) this autumn, and I didn’t consider applying for the award for more than a few seconds, assuming there’d be no point. Besides, without a support network (I’m outside academia), after a month or so it stills feel like piping in the void. The net can be a lonely place if you’re part of the long tail of not very interesting specialists! And self-promoting is awful. But this post has boosted my resolve to keep on at it …

  12. Lisa Fredin says:

    Thanks for the wonderful candor. I think self-promotion is a hard line for many women to walk as they balance getting themselves out there and not being too pushy. I know for me this has been a recent struggle I am working on.
    I really like your thoughts about blogs as mentorship since as a young woman in science it is sometimes hard to find a mentor in your local vicinity that is enough like you. I have really struggled finding mentors who think like I do and can help me think about the types of issues I am wrestling with. I have mostly found mentors who talk about issues relevant to me through blogs and podcasts.
    The more woman in science who put themselves out there, the more women in the next generation can find mentors to help them find and stick with their desired career path.

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  14. Sarah says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I have shared it with my colleagues and thought I might comment on my own experience. I am a PhD student with a blog, though in the social sciences. I also have a twitter feed, and have found both invaluable, but for making contacts rather than self-promotion. The self-promotion aspect of it only counts, I feel, if there are enough people in your field, preferably locally, to give you some sort of real-world effect from blogging. As an Australian working in relative isolation – there is no academic community on my topic in this country – I have found my blog and twitter feed useful for similar reasons Lisa has: making connections and being inspired. I have no mentor, but would hope that such a relationship might come from blogging rather than any real world action. The blog also helps on two other points. The first is getting timely writing out there, as Austin says. In a small media environment as in Australia, having a body of work which is short and topical means that chances of media picking up your works are heightened, especially if the university press office is on board, as mine is. This means, although it is slightly appalling, that the university and I both get the media engagement points we need to demonstrate the relevance of our research programs when applying for funding (ugh). It is also a sneaky way for a young woman to write on topics (international politics) which in this country are dominated by men both young and old – give them the guff they need to fill their gaps, basically, and they will publish. Secondly, and more importantly, the blog and twitter feed have helped enormously when lining up interviews for fieldwork in the US and the UK. I have met so many people in my field via these connections, many of whom I would never have met otherwise. As Lisa says, it is worth it for those reasons alone. Self-promotion is such a small part of it.

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  16. arti says:

    Hi,
    Thanks for this post. Social media is a powerful tool for women (and men). Exposure and a higher profile can be very useful:
    The BBC is also running some sessions for women in science to train them to be as presenters on the radio, TV etc. as experts- the IoP sent out an email to members about this.

    I write a blog (http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com/) but did not apply for this award as I’ve only just learned of it through your post. One thing I do to reach out to a wider scientific audience is to guest blog for Optical Society of America as well.

    Another point I’d like to make is that gender equality in STEM is hugely important but I believe it ought to be part of the larger equality agenda: race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion etc. are all important too. We need to tackle all together, rather than a piece meal approach.

    Finally, about women’s representation: many women struggle and do make it to the top. Some close the trapdoor behind them due to insecurities, while others inspire and mentor other women. The essence is that these individual efforts create small ripples and we need to connect these. To change attitudes in instutions (say professional bodies) we need to ask for change in a collective way which is harder to ignore- think the boycott of Elsevier. Would a professional body like to lose all its female members?

    Many women’s groups do exist that do great work. Professional bodies almost all have women’s groups too. Again some do sterling work, but many are a box ticking exercise for the organisation. We need to demand more in terms of resources, training, mentoring, double blind peer review where useful, more grants targetted at women, celebrating female role modes, outreach, appointment of more women on editorial boards, panels and committees that award grants,make appointments,promotions and so much more.

  17. Wynn Abbott says:

    On your comments on the ‘UK Science Blog Prize’: “Entry was by self-nomination, so it did not need the ‘great and good’ to nominate you; it needed you to have enough chutzpah yourself to apply.”

    – but, it did need the ‘you’ (self-nominees) to acknowledge that having a prize like this – supported by something called ‘The Good Thinking Society’ & Skeptics – is a good idea in the first place.

    Please, at least identify that there are a lot of people who support science (and science communication, science blogging, equality in science etc. etc.) who don’t support these other “movements”.

  18. Louise Crane says:

    you may have a point Wynn, but consider that not everyone has strong enough morals and systems of support when £500 is at stake.