Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

In Search of My Rhetorical Penis

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Image: Anemi

I have been thinking more about TheScientist‘s recent online article, “Vote for your favorite life science blogs“, where they asked this same question of seven of the “top” life science bloggers — all of whom just so happened to be men. It reminded me of Declan Butler’s Nature article that was published approximately two years ago, where he listed the “top” science blogs using some rather ambiguous standards that were inconsistently applied for defining precisely what is a science blog .. and he ended up conveniently ignoring this blog, along with a few others (all of which are about science, receive fairly high traffic, and are written by female scientists, coincidentally). That lack of international recognition for my own efforts in the science blogosphere really made me angry at the time, and to be honest, it still does.

Reminscent of that kerfuffle, The Scientist‘s seeming faux pas has caused quite a stir here at ScienceBlogs as well as throughout the science blogosphere in general. Are they blind, biased, or just plain stupid? Why couldn’t TheScientist have found two or three — or heaven forbid even just one — woman to include in their group of esteemed science bloggers?

I suppose that one should begin by establishing what is a “top” science blog, anyway? Is this standard based on traffic alone? Or on the quality of the writing? And, if the writing on a particular blog is “good”, then doesn’t that blog’s traffic reflect its perceived quality? If so, then why were (male) blog writers included in that survey whose blogs have less traffic than say, this one?

But besides those questions, I am curious to know why you think women are so underrepresented among the “top” science blogs. Is this due to innate biological differences between men and women that are manifest on their blogs? For example, are women genetically (or hormonally) “programmed” to remain out of the limelight, to be followers rather than leaders, to support others as they seek to change the world, rather than seeking to do so themselves? Or maybe women are too busy with other things to write a top science blog, especially since they are typically the primary caregivers to kids and family, even when the father remains solidly in the picture. Perhaps testosterone or social conditioning (or both) cause men to communicate differently than women do; maybe men use words as a rhetorical penis that they flash around at the world, while women use words to build communities.

On the other hand, could this gender imbalance instead be due to the perception that blog writing is yet another male-dominated activity that basically squeezes women out of top recognition because, well, they’re not part of the boys’ club? But the life sciences enjoy a fairly large contingent of female scientists and doctors as well as female blog writers, unlike most other scientific fields, such as physics, for example, yet this gender imbalance remains. Or maybe you readers just enjoy reading what a man writes more than what a woman writes? If so, that suggests that there is a gender-based difference in writing styles. If so, can you describe what that difference is? And again, if there is a difference, this takes us back to the rhetorical penis suggestion. Is this ultimately what blog writing (and possibly all writing in general) is all about?

Comments

  1. #1 Bob O'H
    September 20, 2007

    I wonder, are women under-represented amongst the top science blogs? I’d like to see the data (e.g. from Technorati). My impression is that the proportion of women bloggers is less, but I haven’t got any numbers. Hence, one might expect the proportion of top women bloggers to be less than 50%. IOW, women just may not blog as much.

    Dang, it should be possible to get the data, and have a look. But not at this time of night.

    Bob

  2. #2 John McKay
    September 20, 2007

    In one of the earlier rounds of “where are all the girls” played out among political bloggers, two explanations came up that seemed plausible (in my opinion, at the time) among a lot of misogynistic bull.

    One was that it was just an artifact of the earlier domination of computer stuff in general by males and that things would even out in time. This sounds a lot like the explanation for male dominance in business and politics in the real world. However, since the institutional advantages of entrenched power exist less in cyberspace, the hope that the situation would quickly change seemed valid to me.

    The second was that males were more active in general political writing and that women were more active in issues. As with paper publishing, generalist magazines have broader audiences that specialist writing. While this seemed logical to me, I was suspicious that no one was able to provide any valid statistics to back it up. It had an ugly echo of the “Negroes like the ghetto” arguments I remember from the sixties.

    I don’t think either of these arguments is valid for the specific topic of science writing. In my own reading of science and skepticism blogs, males outnumber females, but not by a seven to zero ration. In life sciences the ratio is pretty close to one to one. The Scientist just screwed up. Big time, as a certain Sith lord might say.

  3. #3 writerdd
    September 20, 2007

    Mostly, and sadly, they’re just plain stupid.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    September 20, 2007

    Hmmm, I’d go with laziness over stupidity this time (that’s a special case of the “incompetence before malice” rule).

    Everybody’s basic expectation about things Internetty is that networks grow by preferential attachment. This is the idea that every time a new node joins the network, it connects to one or more existing nodes, and the new node links to an old one with a probability proportional to the number of links the old node already has. Thus do the rich get richer.

    (This was first cooked up in the 1960s to explain citation patterns in the scientific literature. It was rediscovered later, in the 1990s, and a little while after that somebody checked and found that it doesn’t really describe journal citations — but it’s still everybody’s first guess for approaching a new problem.)

    If women are “late adopters” for any reason, then preferential attachment will penalize their connectivity, not for any intrinsic reason but simply because they “came to the party late”. When you ask people to pick their favorite science blogs, you’re basically asking them to create a few new links; by the basic rule of preferential attachment, they’re probably going to link to people who are already pretty heavily connected.

    Which, sad to say, doesn’t really benefit the people out in the “long tail” of the connectivity distribution.

    Nor, for that matter, does it make an article which is informative to people who have already been in the bloggy realm for any substantial length of time. We’re probably already reading whatever they recommend, or most of it. The Scientist could have made a more interesting piece if they’d specifically requested “your favorite unknown science blogs”.

    Why women would have entered the blogo-world later, or at a slower rate, I don’t know. Perhaps the lamentable gender imbalances in academia are aggravated, or enhanced, by the problem that blogging is “one more job”. One might compare the situation with that of women who’d like to write books or be faculty advisors to student groups: if women already have to work uphill, they might not want to incur the extra obligation.

    I’d be very surprised if a publication like The Scientist deliberately set out to infuriate or denigrate women. Of course, that’s just my uninformed judgment, but this is the year two-thousand-and-fucking-seven. What I find more likely is that women are underrepresented among science bloggers, for some reason or reasons which we should identify and fix.

    I’d like to see more data on this than a single junk-food article in a single publication. For example, like Bob O’H pointed out, we need to know the actual distribution of genders, for a start! Also, I’m curious if that distribution is different in the different fields of science (remember, this was a life-science-specific informal survey). Unfortunately, that sort of data will probably require a research project of its own to collect.

  5. #5 sciencewoman
    September 20, 2007

    I’d completely forgotten that you were (absurdly) left off that list. I remember when it came out and I was on it how bizarre that felt – I’m still not sure whether I even qualify as a science blogger (well, I guess I am now).

    I counted by the way, and of his top 50, 7 blogs were single-authored by women and 30-some by men. Groups (most with a female or with unrevealed gender distributions) accounted for the rest.

  6. #6 Becca
    September 20, 2007

    My thinking on the Scientist is that they are just lazy and stupid.
    My thinking on what makes a good blog is that it’s more than about just traffic-there are blogs I check very frequently, or even comment on a lot, and just don’t look forward to reading the same way I do for other blogs. Incidently, for me, this corresponds partially to male-written blogs and female-written blogs. Anyway, that’s just my experience- but I think it is possible there are actual writing style differences that correlate with gender somewhat.

    I still think that the reason they didn’t get a good variety of responses is that they didn’t ask a good variety of people (root cause- stupidity).

  7. #7 Yet another woman
    September 21, 2007

    You’ve brought up some very relevant questions in your post- and I really wish I had answers!
    I know for a fact though that there are all sorts of women (community-builders and otherwise) with all sorts of writing styles..
    Could this have something to do with the actual number of women in the “world of science” ?

  8. #8 Chris' Wills
    September 21, 2007

    It does seem strange, then again most of the scientists mentioned in the media are also male.

    In blogs traffic really shouldn’t matter, some science blogs have high traffic but not because of the science but because of the hobbies of the bloggers (i.e. they post about their favourite sports or are heavily politicised).

    I’ld guess that your ratio of science to non-science is fairly high.

    Also depends on the science talked about, Birds fascinate me as does nature in general and you write very well; but you are competing against the hard sciences such as physics which are very popular.

  9. #9 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    Sciencewoman:

    I counted by the way, and of his top 50, 7 blogs were single-authored by women and 30-some by men. Groups (most with a female or with unrevealed gender distributions) accounted for the rest.

    Thanks for counting! Now, if we could only get the analogous figures for all of Technorati. . . .

    Becca:

    My thinking on what makes a good blog is that it’s more than about just traffic-there are blogs I check very frequently, or even comment on a lot, and just don’t look forward to reading the same way I do for other blogs.

    Naturally; I’m the same way. I do think, however, that traffic has a good deal to do with how readers discover new blogs, which is an important thing to understand if we want to know, for example, if women science-bloggers are out there but not being discovered.

    Anyway, that’s just my experience- but I think it is possible there are actual writing style differences that correlate with gender somewhat.

    It’s always possible. Somebody should conduct a “Pepsi Challenge”: present a random sample of readers with paragraphs randomly chosen from male and female science bloggers, and see how many readers choose the gender of the author correctly. I’m betting that there exists a considerable variation of writing styles among men as well as among women, so that some writers can easily be identified as male or female, while many others (perhaps the majority) are more androgynous.

    That’s just my guess; I can’t say for sure until somebody actually does the experiment.

  10. #10 c.a.Marks
    September 21, 2007

    LOL I enjoyed your article. I, however, do not have an answer for you but also wanted to let you know it appears to be the same not just in science but in politics as well; probably all topics.

    I also received your submission to the SheBlogs Carnival. Thank you! I look forward to putting it together next month. Stay tuned….

  11. #11 isabella mori
    October 6, 2007

    as i was reading this, this experience came to mind immediately:

    the other day, i went to a gathering of IT people. the vast majority were men – and relatively young men, to boot. there is something that happens when a bunch of young men get together. even though they were all friendly and relaxed, there definitely was a strong whiff of eau de testosterone in the air. a sense of needing to get ahead, of needing to “make it” that would not have been as prevalent in a gathering of mostly women.

    i used to have the same feeling when i studied philosophy. the urge to debate and the desire to win debates among many (definitely not all!) male students almost had a sexual quality to it.

    science is still seen as a very competitive endeavour, so perhaps if a piece of writing does not have that competitive “smell” to it, it does not immediately appeal to science journalists.

    re blogging, we can now take the (still) male-dominated IT world and the (still) male-dominated world of science and – tada!

    btw, it’s interesting to look at your post. in text analysis, one of the difference between male and female writing that has been found by some at least is that women tend to have more questions in their writing. your article has 559 words and 13 question marks.

    while a recent study did not corroborate the difference re question marks, it still found quite a large difference between men and women writers.

    one interesting finding in that study is that “gender differences were large on tasks that had fewer constraints on language use.”

    that’s interesting in connection with blogs specifically – a place where, as we can see right here, i (an woman researcher :)) feel quite comfortable not constraining myself to the use of ordinary capitalization.

    (and of course we need to remember what blake says – there IS considerable difference in writing styles among women)

  12. #12 glen
    October 26, 2007

    Well, I just did a quick count. Among blogs I read that have a substantial proportion of posts about science or mathematics (say more than 20%), slightly more than half are by women. I suspect that women would make up quite a bit less than half the population of bloggers in science and mathematics, so if anything this (male) reader appears to have a substantial anti-male bias.

    (Though in fact I don’t – I just read interesting writers, and add new ones as they come along.)

    I can’t really judge what’s causing the apparent bias.

  13. #13 Elaine Vigneault
    October 30, 2007

    “could this gender imbalance instead be due to the perception that blog writing is yet another male-dominated activity that basically squeezes women out of top recognition because, well, they’re not part of the boys’ club?”

    Yes, it could be.