Women, science, and blogs: some more thoughts.

Thanks to all the commenters on the last post that raised, in a somewhat half-assed way, the question of what -- if anything -- we should make of the gender (im)balance of the pool of bloggers on the science beat. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, I'm not sure I have enough data and insight yet to use my whole ass on this topic, but the comments have given me enough to start pressing the second cheek into service.

The follow-up questions I'd like to take up today to the original question ("where are the women science bloggers?") are:


  • Who cares?/Why should it matter who's writing the blog?

  • What counts as a science blog anyway, and does that change the way the gender distribution looks?

  • Are the rewards and risks of writing science blogs different for women and men?

  • What kind of audience are science bloggers (or various sorts) trying to reach?

It goes with out saying that there are many more issues we could tease out here. This list reflects what I'm up for today; the details are below the fold.

Who cares?/Why should it matter who's writing the blog?
Back in the early days of the internets, much was said of the potentially liberating and democratizing potential of a medium where you couldn't tell the men from the women, the old-timers from the youngsters, the dogs from the cats. We would all be evaluated on the quality of our ideas (and the accuracy of our typing), not on how we looked or sounded delivering them. This general mood is echoed by Jenn's comment:

I read several of the blogs listed above because they're good, not because they're written by women.

And, it fits nicely with one of the Mertonian norms of science, universalism. Universalism means that, in the community of science, every member's ideas are of equal status with everyone else's -- so whether those ideas are coming from a man or a woman just shouldn't matter.

As I've mentioned before, I was intentionally vague about my gender when I started blogging about ethics and science. And, I was surprised to find that a majority of the admittedly small number of people who tagged me -- whether they were male or female -- identified me as a male. (When PZ Myers first tagged me, he did so it a way that was just as vague about my gender as my blog was. Julie always identified me with feminine pronouns when tagging me, but since she had me for a class, she had insider information here.) Why, in the absence of evidence either way, assume a blog about ethics and science is authored by a man? Is it that Ph.D. in chemistry? Do I "blog like a man"? The frequency of this mistake in misidentification makes me suspect that it really did reflect an unconscious assumption about the kind of person who blogs about scientific issues.

Sure, fine -- go into the blogosphere all vague about your gender, and of course people will jump to some mistaken conclusions. So what? Possibly, principled attempts to transcend gender in cyberspace might (falsely) reinforce a set of arguments from frequencies about men and women in science. To wit: most of the people blogging about science are (or are assumed to be) men, and most of the people commenting on blogs about science are (or are assumed to be) men, which seems to be some kind of evidence for ... something. Maybe it's evidence that there are more men interested in blogging about science. Maybe it's evidence that there are more men with the expertise to blog well about science (although a quick dip in the more political waters of the blogosphere suggests there's not a perfect correlation between blogging about X and having expertise in X). Even if there really are more men than women blogging about science, there are plenty of other possible explanations, but lots of folks latch quickly onto the "women aren't as interested in blogging about science as men are." From there, they slide quickly to the conclusion that women aren't as interested in science as men are -- and then, we're off to the races. You know the ones I'm talking about -- the "no worries about relative lack of women at the highest levels of science, because chicks just dig other things (or maybe they're just not cut out for science)" song and dance.

In other words, the relative proportions of men and women blogging about science (or reading science blogs) might be used as data to support (or undermine) explanations of the relative proportions of men and women practicing science or studying science. I'm not saying this data should be used in this way, just that it probably will be.

What counts as a science blog anyway, and does that change the way the gender distribution looks?
How we count the gender distribution of "science bloggers" obviously depends a great deal on how we define "science blogs". Are the blogs we're talking about solely the "knowledge logs"? Do we include blogs that are "filters" for science current events? What about "journal" blogs about the daily life of a scientist or a science student? My own inclination is to count all of these (and blogs that are mixtures of these different modes) as science blogs.

Looking at my own blogroll (which I'm going to update after this conversation -- thanks for the great links, commenters!), it strikes me that the lion's share of the woman-authored blogs I have in my "blogs about science" section are frequently (if not entirely) "journal" blogs on the lives in science their authors are living. And I'll confess, even though the life of a scientist is one I traded in more than a decade ago, I find myself more drawn to the "journal" style science blog than to the "k-logs" that are all about interesting new findings or cool new colliders or what have you. One reason for this is that, as someone who does philosophy of science for a living, I think the details of scientific practice -- how you decide when an experiment has worked, what it does or doesn't show you, when your pile of data is rising to the level of knowledge, etc. -- is enormously important to our understanding of how science gets the job done. Also, as someone concerned with ethics in the practice of science, it's good to stay in touch with the realities of the scientific life (where people are sometimes less than helpful because they're watching their own backs) -- it's no good figuring out what would be the right thing to do if you can't offer a plausible roadmap to get there from where things are now.

If one wants to get picky and set aside the "journal" blogs as the (perfectly justifiable) bitching and moaning of graduate students/postdocs/adjuncts/assistant professors killing themselves to get tenured, many of the female scientist whose blogs I read don't get counted. (For what its worth, I read "journal" blogs by male scientist, too, but there are fewer of these that I know about.) I suspect blogs of this type may be undervalued -- or maybe just underlinked. Perhaps lots of people are reading them but just aren't talking about them.

Are the rewards -- and risks -- of writing science blogs different for women and men?
It seems to me that the different kinds of blogs one could write each bring with them different potential rewards and risks. This might make it plausible that women in science are drawn more to certain kinds of blogs than to others based on the kinds of things that might be harder for them to get out of their professional lives if they weren't blogging. One of these things could well be a sense of community with other scientists who are going through, or have gone through, the same kinds of things you are.

Seriously, in lots of fields of science it can still feel weird to be a woman. In grad school, even if the number of male and female students is roughly the same (which it isn't yet in many scientific disciplines), chances are many more of the professors in your department are male. Not that male professors can't be excellent mentors to female students, but there are some issues they might not be able to help you with. Like the snooty undergrads who assume the solution set you prepared for the homework they just turned in can't be right, because they (male undergraduates) got different answers to some of the problems than you (the female TA) did. Or the classmates who put down every success you have (be it a publication, a job offer, or even, for some reason, success with your experimental system) to preferential treatment you must be getting as a woman. Or the complexity of figuring out whether there's any chance in hell of your being able to work childbearing into the grad school-postdoc-postdoc-adjunct-tenure track-tenure (?) future you see stretching before you. Plus, of course, the usual struggle the grad student faces trying to get things in the lab or the field to actually work.

The blogosphere makes it possible to stumble upon other people who have been through the stuff you're going through. They can comiserate. Often, they have useful advice. I don't know if blog connections often lead to actual mentoring relations, but they can help. Men working their way through the science pipeline need community and mentoring too, but their chances of finding the support they need from folks in their department are a little better. Until women in science can reliably find the community they need in the three-dimensional world, "journal" type blogs may help them get by.

Paradoxically, the usefulness of "journal" blogs to women trying to navigate the tribe of science might make it harder for them to author "k-logs", at least at first. In the comments on the last post, Sciencewoman wrote:

I wonder about whether the type of blog is related to the nymous status of its author. I know that when I think about writing science posts I am most comfortable writing about my own field, but because I am trying to remain pseudonymous I am concerned about revealing my specialty (its rather small and close-knit). And I am remaining pseudonymous so that I don't hurt my job search chances....it's a vicious cycle.

Obviously, if you need to get stuff off your chest about crappy ways you've been treated by other scientists -- especially those who have control over whether you get to be an author on the paper, whether your dissertation goes through, whether you get good letters of recommendation -- it's safer to do this anonymously. But blogging about specifics of the kinds of science you do in a "k-log" mode makes it easier for those reading your blog to figure out who you really are. And that's a problem if those readers include some of the people you've been venting about or their pals.

So, do you blog about the cool scientific results, or do you blog about the day to day struggle in the trenches? There's a trade-off here that bloggers have to work out for themselves. As Michelle Francl points out, one way to work it out is to compartmentalize:

I'm definitely a "knowledge blogger" on culture of chemistry and have a more journal-like blog elsewhere.

But, in the same comment, she also writes:

As to the where are the women question, I wonder if it is because women have fewer unscheduled hours in their days than the average male? Less time, less time to blog!

If push comes to shove and you don't have enough hours to keep both kinds of blog separately, you might decide to save the "k-log" blogging for the other side of tenure.

What kind of audience are science bloggers (or various sorts) trying to reach?
A possible explanation of the greater visibility of male science bloggers than female science bloggers is that the males want to be visible and the females don't. Authors of "k-logs" are making an effort to be a source of expert information and insight; authors of "journals" may want to vent without having it get back to the people who are being vented about. You'd think, then, the "k-log" authors want to attract big audiences of people who can benefit from the knowledge, while the "journal" authors might want to keep the audience pretty small.

However, it would be a mistake to think the scientists keeping "journal" type blogs can get by without any audience. In many ways, authoring a "journal" blog strikes me as consistent with an impulse towards building objective knowledge. The anecdotes bloggers share about difficult advisors, cranky machinery, treacherous competitors, and such, are often the subject of blog entries because they're so unbelievable. Writing about such experiences in an environment where others can comment is a way to find out whether it's just you, or whether this kind of stuff happens to other scientists who are reading your blog. This is the same principle that drives scientists to compare notes about experimental systems and to try to reproduce each other's experiments: If I'm the only one who sees this, it might all be in my head, but if others are seeing this too, it's really there. A paper diary doesn't offer this kind of sounding board -- nor does a blog without any commenting readers. So, even if some of the science "journal" bloggers would prefer to keep a relatively low profile, they need to have some visibility.

As I said, above, there's lots more going on here, and it's quite possible that some of my hunches here are dead wrong. Please set me straight, and keep telling me where the other good science blogs are hiding.

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First, another female science blog that is excellent and is not a journal-type blog is The Well-Timed Period covering reproductive physiology, medicine and politics.

I am not disputing anything you wrote in this (and the previous) post, but I'd like to add more food for thought:

For a blogger to be a science blogger, one first has to be a scientist. Thus, the sex-ratio of sci-bloggers just reflects the sex-ratio in science as a whole. The trends for the future look pretty good, especially in biology, but it will take some time (years) before it is equal.

When I look at sci-blogs, who is linking to whom, or who is submitting what kinds of posts to Tangled Bank, I And The Bird, Circus Of The Spineless, Carnival Of The Green, Teaching Carnival, or Grand Rounds, I do not see any signs of 'discrimination' against journal-type blogs or posts.

What are anti-IDC rants, after all? They are not science reporting, nor journal-type reflections of a life in science. Neither are posts about politics of science, or science education, or science journalism. Or debunking pseudoscience.

I run two blogs:

Circadiana is 'pure' science. The core posts are summaries of the basics of chronobiology (the ClockTutorials series) aimed primarily at students taking college courses in Biological Clocks, and secondarily at interested lay blog readers. I also report sometimes on the latest research, give shout-outs to other people blogging about the topic, pointing my readers to relevant websites, analyzing the reporting of the field in the media, hosting carnivals, and sometimes providing something lighter, e.g., Clock Quotes. I would call it a k-log, for sure.

On Science And Politics, I am more likely to comment on Creationists or some other bunk science, to muse about my experiences in teaching biology, comment on the politics of science, etc. all within a smorgasbord of miscellaneous posts on various topics, ranging from meta-blogging, to politics, to humor. Thus it is a mix of k-log, advocacy and journal.

S&P (usually) has more daily hits, more incoming links, more regular readers and more commenters, but Circadiana has way more silent subscribers on Bloglines, and some posts are constantly appearing on deli.ci.ous and stumbleupon. So, which one is the "science blog"? I say, both, each in its own way.

Also, check PZ Myers' blogroll - it is huge. Check the archives of the Tangled Bank (and related carnivals) for bloggers who contributed and hosted. You can find many on my Blogroll, too.

Interesting observation about PZ Myers and his non-gendered identification of your blog. It actually took me a long time to figure out PZ's gender. I wasn't especially concerned about it except for the fact that from time to time, one needs to refer to other bloggers in the third person. Now with his picture right on the blog (as it is with all of us ScienceBloggers), some of the gender-bending fun has been removed.

When I'm writing about scientists on Cognitive Daily, I'm trying to use a casual voice, which generally means using third person pronouns (instead of "Dr. Jones", for example), so I often spend a considerable amount of time trying to determine the gender of researchers (is "Yuko" a man's name or a woman's name? How about "Robin"?). Sometimes I wonder whether it's a waste, but I do think that by identifying the gender, I at least am able to demonstrate that both genders contribute to science.