The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing: Why Too Many Y's?

I have yet to meet anyone who has read this book, myself included. But apparently some sciency blogger picked up a copy the other day and noticed a near absence of female scientists represented in the anthology. Why? Y, apparently.

As you probably know, Richard Dawkins is presently being raked over blogospheric coals for having edited a volume of science writing that includes only about 3.6% of its works written by females. The observation was first made here at hgg, and has been discussed here at The Intersection, here at Aetiology, here at Questionable Authority, at Blue Lab Coats, here by Miranda (who has a dissenting view)
and here by Drug Monkey.

I have a few brief comments and then a suggestion.

There is some confusion over the editorial purpose of this work that has come into play in the discussion. Dawkins' volume is entitled: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
, and is editorially described as:

Boasting almost one hundred pieces, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a breathtaking celebration of the finest writing by scientists--the best such collection in print--packed with scintillating essays on everything from "The Discovery of Lucy" to "The Terror and Vastness of the Universe."

This is not, as Dawkins has pointed out, an anthology of contemporary work. The word Modern, in academic and near-academic settings, means an historical time period that started some time ago. The Modern Era per se is often officially considered to start at the end of (or maybe the beginning of, or some time during?) the Battle of Bosworth in 1495. In other words, that which is "Modern" is post-Medieval. Dawkins, in a comment on The Intersection, notes that in the case of this book, "Modern" is meant to be the last 100 years. Either way, the misconception that this anthology is of contemporary writing can be put aside. In fact, a number of the authors are deceased. (Perhaps the best definition of a modern scientist is that you have living graduate students and not all of your ideas are dead.)

A second misconception has been that this is an anthology of "science writers" as in "Carl Zimmer is a science writer." A quick look at the table of contents would disabuse any one of this notion ... which goes a long way towards supporting the idea that one should be cautious in one's criticism of a book one has not read. This is not an anthology of writers (who write about science). It is an anthology of writing by scientists. Modern scientists. Not contemporary science writers, of which many are women, but significant scientists of the last century or so, of which most are males.

It is possible that 3.6% is close to the actual percentage of women who fit this category over this time period. If so, the number of women in this anthology should have been doubled or tripled (there is no magic number). Why increase the ratio of women? I can't believe you are asking me this question!!!!! The real question is, can you pick nearly 100 pieces of science writing without regard to gender, then go and get a few more that are female only to up the ratio without ruining the whole project by including a whole bunch of crap that you would otherwise not have included?

Well, lets ask the editor. Go to the introduction of the book and see if Dawkins says something like "We had a hard time narrowing down the choices, but we feel that we've done a good job" or if he says "We had a hard time coming with enough good stuff, so there's some drek in here." I suspect it would have been possible to add a handful of additional items by women to get that percentage up to double or triple.

Nonetheless, it might be interesting to ask how many women are typically represented in traditional press published science anthologies. Maybe 3.6% is a large number. I looked at a few. One anthology that I checked covered a much, much longer time period than Dawkin's book, but it did include the modern era by either definition above, and it was about science philosophy not science. Not the best example but a place to start. In that book, Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology, there was not a single female among dozens and dozens of pieces. Then I checked The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science, Including the Original Papers. That's a great book. It is modern era by Dawkins definition, and all the writings are original, (more or less) peer reviewed, historically significant articles, slightly annotated and in some cases abridged, representing many of the key findings, but not including really recent work (intentionally, according to the editor, Alan Lightman). (If you don't know that book, you should!) Here we find 4 clearly identifiable females as authors (meaning I did not look up if someone listed with initials only was female) among 25 articles. That is not a ratio of females to males because some authors appear more than once (well, Einstein appears more than once) and several papers have multiple authors. But it is a similar ratio to the one that started this discussion. According to my calculations, The Discoveries has a female representation rate of 16% or more.

I don't think Dawkins can be faulted for not having a 50% ratio in a book of this type. But 3 or 4% is too low. There should have been more to have increased this number.

Depending on the nature of the anthology, it is possible to provisionally identify why there are fewer women than men in the panoply of possible picks. There were fewer women than men working in science during the "Modern" period. There were fewer opportunities for women who were in science to publish their work. There were limits on women's opportunities to promote their own work. And so on.

The second two of these factors could have resulted in the interesting situation of some women having done some very important work that does not come to us today in a written form that could be attributed to said woman and published in an anthology like this. If I am not mistaken, Jocelyn Bell Burnell may be an example. She has her name on a couple of items but her contributions were much more significant than reflected in what was published. There are probably many other examples. Women who were in this sort of situation could never be represented in any contemporary anthology of modern works such as the one just edited by Dawkins (or any other I've seen).

So here's a suggestion: Next anthology, do the work necessary to identify a half dozen or so women who's published works can not really be readily anthologized because of limited opportunities for them to have published, but who's work was significant nonetheless. Find a contemporary science writer ... with two X Chromosomes please ... to write up that woman's work and place her contributions in both a scientific and socio-political context. Discuss the biases and discuss ways to work with these biases in the introduction.

This, along with a more concerted effort to identify women's work to simply include at a higher rate, should make an interesting anthology with a better gender ratio.

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Yes, and while we are at it, let's make sure we get some writing from black people, and homosexuals, and left-handed, and chinese, and polynesians, and people over 60, and people under 25, and...., and...., and.....
Or wait - let's save ourselves all that trouble, and just do exactly what was done this time - picked what was considered (subjectively!!) to be the best.

I'm not sure I agree with the idea. I'm particularly inclined to not see why one should do so for females and not for ethnic or racial groups. And if so, should we go out of our way to reduce the fraction for otherwise overrepresented groups such as Jews?

It also isn't clear to me what increasing the fraction for any group accomplishes. Is the idea to inspire young people in that group to become scientists? Frankly, inspiring people to become scientists isn't a goal of the book. As one of the few people who seems to have actually read the book (it was fascinating) the reading level is a degree such that one would already need to be deeply interested in science and math in order to appreciate the book. So it isn't at all clear to me what adding more female authors would do.

You have a good point, but perhaps it may also have something to do with the fact that there are simply fewer women in science than men. I'm at a conference now that wouldn't be more than 10% women, and it isn't a typically male-driven field.

Well, I didn't go into detail in this post, but consider these two reasons to up the number of females (and yes this would also be good for non-whites, other minorities, etc) at least a little.

1) Do form a better, more nurturing environment for such people. Joshua, it does not matter that this book is not targeted to young people in science. The biases we know are there affect people at all levels including PhD students.

2) The selection process for something like this is the end point of a long series of steps each one of which tends to be exclusionary. The fact that this is the end and not the beginning (or middle) allows us to say "It does not matter, what is done is done. Fix the problem at another level." But, if we look only at the beginning of the process, we could say "Hey, the ladies are going to be biased against to such an exten at every subsequent level, we can't fix the problem here" and so on.

There are ways in which anti-bias action can propagate positive action in all directions up and down a process and sideways to boot. In action, however, is not the lack of such positive effects. It is in and of itself a negative effect.

We do not need to ruin the purpose of such a book by including junk or excluding that which is great. We just need to add a few more items by women and other underrepresented groups ... and such materials exist.

not more dickydawkins posts...

This is a lot of sound and fury over very little... I have read the book (reviewed it here: ) -- it's the best science anthology for a general readership I've ever seen, on many counts (and I'm not even a Dawkins fan). Science is science whether it's written by a male, a female, or a hermaphrodite; gender ought have NO bearing on the selections.

As a woman, ARJ presumably knows what she is talking about and we should pay attention to her.

There's also a problem here with attempting foist American gender politics onto an English book.

But seriously. Someone should try to respond to Dawkin's suggestion instead of just invoking dood white and puke as if those are arguments.

Come up with a few suggestions and then tell him why they need to replace someone in the anthology. Be precise about who needs to be chucked out because they deserve less to be in there.

And then anon can point to how no one will let Dawkins do the job of the editor and we no longer live in a free society and we iz ruinzed!

anon, there are specific recommendations made in this blog post about inclusion. Did you have any critique to make of them?

I think it's a tad silly to compare females, who make up 50% of the population, with minorities that make up 10% or less. Females aren't a minority.

Jeremy, when did women come to 50-50 in science? Where is anyone asking for 50-50 in a book like this?

I work in a dev bio lab at a prestigious institution. The PI is female, the chair is female, many of the faculty members are female. The post docs are mostly female. The frau is a PI across the street in another "prestigious" university. The chair in here department is a female, who got the job because her spouse is the dean. The department awarded a tenured position to a "scientist" who has published anything in decades, and gave her two labs because she's the wife of the president. Another tenured position is held by the wife of the previous chair. Her department is also mostly women. What does all this say? Nothing. Well, perhaps that guys aren't given too many positions based on spouse's accomplishments. Nevertheless, this bs that women are under-represented here, there, everywhere is just that much bs.
Lastly, not too many women are among the casualties coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be working to correct that imbalance too I suppose...

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink


You are making the criticisms.

Please provide one of the men included in Dawkin's book that must be removed in favour of a woman and why.

The function of an English published and edited book providing good examples from the world of science from 1900-2000 is not to sort out American gender politics ca. 2009.

I have read Richard Dawkins' "The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing" in November of 2008. I found it to be an outstanding selection of good literature of good science. This book, as pointed out by Greg and others, does not deserve this latest round of criticism.

By NewenglandBob (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Well, actually, I was saing it DOES deserve this criticism. I just get annoyed when the criticism is uncritical (demanding that since there are many great "modern" (i.e, currently active and alive) people writing about science bla bla bla). I think there should be more than 3.6 percent women. I demonstrated an example of a book that overlaps in time and has a similar theme that achieves 16 percent.

That does not mean, though, that it is not a great book. I've thumbed through it and I've been waiting patiently for someone to give me a copy.


No one has, though.


@12 Onkel Bob, you might be surprised. I work at an extremely prestigious research institute, I know a faculty member who was provided a lab because they wanted to hire his wife.

Anon makes a good point about all these complaints but nobody offering up concrete examples of who should go and who should replace them. Dare I suggest that someone go out and compile there own volume?

Thanks, Greg.

Depending on the nature of the anthology, it is possible to provisionally identify why there are fewer women than men in the panoply of possible picks. There were fewer women than men working in science during the "Modern" period. There were fewer opportunities for women who were in science to publish their work. There were limits on women's opportunities to promote their own work... one was paying attention to them...

I work at an extremely prestigious research institute, I know a faculty member who was provided a lab because they wanted to hire his wife.

Yeah, my school's inability to make this sort of deal has been a stumbling block in attracting researchers.

By Treppenwitz (not verified) on 07 Dec 2009 #permalink

Paying attention to the gender of a writer scientist is non sense. Requesting the author of an anthology to pay attention to the gender of the writers s/he includes is even worse non sense.

I can't believe you feel otherwise.

All women should feel insulted by that claim.

The assumption that there should be a much higher percentage of great female science writing from previous decades than shown in this anthology seems to me to be an assumption that great science writing is inherent, and not based on practice, hard work, exposure to the right environment, etc.

I'm not sure this is the case. So as women have been denied the opportunity in the past to practice and work in science environments, it may be that there won't be the same quality of work available for this anthology from women as men, not just because the editors have to look harder to find great works buried because of the authors gender, but because many potentially great women scientists never had the opportunity to develop the skills and experience needed to write it.

Without knowing anything about this book, I agree with Greg that it seems likely that Dawkins could have made a greater effort to search for quality work by women scientists that is less available because of historical circumstance.

Of course, the only "fair" way to pick the top 100 writings would be to read them without names attached. This would still be a compromised endeavor because any editor putting together a collection like this would be familiar enough with the writings to recognize the authors.

[OT digression] For a fun book about the pitfalls of editing a collection of writers, read The Anthology by Nicholson Baker. His protagonist is a poet who can't write the introduction to his collection of poems because he has writer's block. A wry meditation on what we choose to value.

This book has been out for over a year - I read my copy at the beginning of this year (it's very good, by the way). Why also this sudden fuss?

I think there should be more than 3.6 percent women.

So what would be your acceptable minimum inclusion rate? What would be your selection criteria? If 3.6% is too low, then how about 5%? or 10%?

By baldywilson (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

Science is science whether it's written by a male, a female, or a hermaphrodite; gender ought have NO bearing on the selections.

But gender did have a bearing, in that historical contingencies made it much more likely for persons of the male gender to have their work considered. Making an effort to include work by women is correcting for an existing gender bias.

[10] Diane G.: one was paying attention to them...

Yes, exactly. Those other reasons I gave were mostly independent of each other and what happened here at the beginning of the editorial process. Then, as this editorial process began, someone was supposed to say "Oh, let's make sure we do better than average on representation of the little diversity that existed over this time period, including gender, for the sake of bringing some role models forward and doing our part to reverse centuries of sexism in science, even if just a little. Put that on the list of things to attend to."

Then, at some early stage in the process, there was a book proposal/plan. Editors at Oxford are remiss for not noticing the absence of a diversity statement.

Then, at the end of the process, the better conversation to be having NOT would be:

"Richard .... 3.6 percent? WTF?"

"Well, those were gender biased times ..."

but rather:

"Richard, 6.7%? WTF? ..."

"Well, we started with 3.6 percent, and did what we could. Those were gender biased times!"

Baldy: "Why also this sudden fuss?" Good question. Because it came up, and is still an issue. We are very accustom to the blogosphere addessing an issue on the day it comes up and then forgetting about it within 48 hours, but sometimes we have more time depth, and there is nothing wrong with that, really.

"So what would be your acceptable minimum inclusion rate?" See the comment I just made. There is not an acceptable number or target in this sort of instance. There is an acceptable procedure. In fact, take my fake dialog above and change the second part's numbers to "1%" and "3.6%"... the final number could in fact be what it turned out to be.

Now, as for THE REST OF YOU!!! .. listen up. This anthology does not have a magic number ... 100 .. of entries. It is not the case that to add two or three additonal entries by women that anyone would have to be knocked out. In addition, it is not true .. plain and simple ... that there is an absolute objective ranking and that women would have to be moved up to higher on some such ranking scale than they deserve. If you think that is how it works, you've never had the job of ranking entries to an anthology, ranking grant proposals, ranking applications, etc. With small numbers of apps one can easily be in the situation of saying no to a diversity-enhancing candidate becaue you can't knock out some perfect match higher on the list, but when we review thousands of essays to pick around 100 the inclusion of, in this case, double the number of females would be a reasonable editorial decision. As Dian G said above: Nobody thought to do it.

The percentage (%) of women at a scientific conference does not necessarily have ANY correlation to the % of women in that field.

Culturally, most American families (I can't speak for other countries) consider "taking care of the family" to be more the responsibility of the wife or female partner than of the male. As a result of women's extra responsibility for their households they are presumably less likely to attend conferences that require travel.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

Jeremy - women are considered minorities in most professions. Exceptions would be teaching below the college level, nursing, and salon jobs like cutting hair.

This is because they are statistical minorities and have historically been given less opportunity.

For those of you fearful that some deserving male scientist won't have his work included due to the effort to include work by females: do you REALLY believe that men's accolades for mens work are based only on the quality of their work? I see LOTS of promotions of guys due to who they are buddies with, while lots of very qualified women are not promoted.

In face, colleges practice affirmative action for males as if they didn't accept lower GPA's and test scores from males they would have a significantly higher percentage of female students.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

Onkal Bob - have you considered that perhaps the univ you describe has unusually high %'s of women because women are welcome there, more so than at many other universities?

I have been in the position of having more females on my corporate team than other teams in my company simply because I give female candidates equal consideration and some managers don't. As a result, I get to choose the top women and have a bigger pool to choose from.

By Texas Reader (not verified) on 08 Dec 2009 #permalink

My experience at converences in archaeology, bioanthropology, cultural anthropo, general anthro, food science and nutrition, and education has been that the demography of the conference roughly reflects the demography of the professionals in the field. My experience is that international travel and being from a poor region are bigger impediments to participation than anything else. If someone has been to a conference with a huge reversal in gender representation, I wonder if that is a misconception in what the baseline gender percentage is. Go to a hospital and you'll find lots of women working there ... mainly women. Go to a medical conference, you'll se a higher percentage of men. Man of those girls you saw at the hospital were nurses.

Greg @ 26: very well put--thanks again. Sometimes simple awareness is all that one asks for; no magic numbers.

Texas Reader @ 28 - 30: All of your points ring true in my experience. Most recently, I was stunned to learn that my daughter's college (a Division II MI state institution) had a 70-30% sex ratio skewed to females (out of a total student body of around 20,000).

Diane, you should be more alarmed at these two facts:

1) Girls are smarter than boys. If you give 'em a bunch of tests, the girls do better than the boys on average.

2) The sex ratio skew is hypergynous. Typical State U has more girls. Famous Public School a few more girls. Top State has even ratio. Quasi Ivy League a few more boys. Real Ivy League cheats to keep the sex ratio not embarrassingly overwhelming in favor of boys.

So with 1), there, you're trying to stir up trouble? LOL.

I have observed that the so-called girls' greater-desire-to-please thing is still going strong. I remember so well how I felt, way back when, that if I didn't do well on tests I would be letting down my professor. More recently, I got a kick out of a conversation I overheard between my son & one of his female classmates on the way to their Math-&-Science pull-out HS:

She: "You know the difference between those of us who go to [name of M-&-S school] & the kids at [home high school--where the M-&-S kids took the rest of their classes]? When the teachers tell us the homework is optional, we do it anyway."

He: "We do?"

RE 2): Well, I'm not surprised. I've been reading about these trends for some time now, often as part of the "boy crisis" or whatever they call it...Sigh.

My son went to a Division I school; my daughter chose mostly Div. II schools to consider, and our recent (last spring & summer) round of school tours, interviews, etc., was a real eye-opener to me. Div. II really does try harder! Obviously from the skews you mention, they can't afford to muck-around with the sex ratio. (Happily I've seen extremely progressive diversity-amplifying efforts for true minorities, the disabled, etc.)

But even aware of the trend, I was not expecting a 70/30 split. Think of what that means for the hetero girls looking for significant others! (FWIW, though, I think academically it might be something of a plus, esp. in the sciences. I also remember being way outnumbered and very insecure, back in the day...)

70-30 is high. It is closer to 60 or just under on average across the US, IIRC.

Thanks for writing this, Greg. I think the criticisms you level at the critics were largely resolved within the first few comments at each of the posts you cite, but I do think it's important to remind the reader of them.

Anyway, again, thanks for your thoughtful response to all of this. Given Dawkins's own background, I was surprised he didn't choose any women in anthropology (for whatever reason I often assume he's familiar with the field). Many women over the past 100 years have down paradigm-shifting work in our discipline.

And for those who have told critics of Dawkins's gender ratio to go find our own sandbox (i.e., go write our own anthology)... maybe some of us have gotten together and are starting to plan exactly that book. But it's not exactly going to show up on bookshelves tomorrow, so give us a little time, ok?

I know that many people do this, but in future would you please try to avoid the conflation of "Y chromosomes" with "male", and similar assumptions of karyotype in humans? Thanks.

Your "diversity" post on FTB is awesome by the way, it is in the name of recognizing human diversity that I make this request.

esqg: That brings up an interesting question. Who are the people that I'm saying there are too much of; what do you suggest they be called? Another question would be, am I meant to refer here to sex or gender? Also, and this is not really a good answer to your question (for reasons I discuss in the diversity post, which I'm glad yo like) but someone is going to mention it so I'll just put it on the table: The number of individuals with Y-chromosomes on that list of authors is in fact too large, and the number of people without Y-chromosomes is in fact too low, by any reasonable estimate.