Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Do women need bigger mouths?

Over the past few months I’ve become increasingly irritated by the number of science-themed events that I’ve been invited to that have an all male line-up. It started off with the Royal Society’s events at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences, then there was the Times Top 100 scientists list last week, in which women were virtually invisible (but which I can’t link to because of the paywall). But the final straw came last week at the International Public Communication in Science and Technology (PCST) Conference in Delhi, where platform after platform was packed with male speakers – many of whom had little to say, while intelligent, interesting women sat silently in the audience.

To calm me, a colleague (male and very successful but not on the Times list!) pointed out that in their list, the Times had actually listed the 100 people with the biggest mouths in science. This made me think about my role as a science communicator, which is after all to encourage scientists to have bigger mouths. Is science so male dominated that success is man-shaped or are women reticent about coming forward and so are being ignored? And are we as communicators guilty of being complicit in this? It’s an important point – as Jenny Kitzinger points out in her recent paper in Public Understanding of Science journal looking at media representation of women in science, while fewer than one in five SET employees is female, the mass media has a crucial role in either reinforcing of challenging such gender segreation and inequalities. “Misrepresentation or lack of representation can amount to a form of symbolic annihilation”.

I tried to think about the process I go through when planning events and thinking up speakers. We all like to think that we pick the best people for the jobs – indeed that’s what the organiser of one of the men-only events told me. But we are also know that we are drawn to people similar to ourselves. So while we think we are being open minded, we sometimes aren’t. For instance, a few years ago I was discussing candidates to chair a public meeting with a client. I had worked with the client for many months and had never found him to have any prejudices whatsoever. But when he was suggesting names of people to chair the meeting, he ran through everyone on his management committee except the only woman member. When I asked why he hadn’t suggested her (innocently assuming that he had diplomatically ignored her because she was mad or inarticulate) he looked aghast and horrified as he admitted that he hadn’t even thought of her. It wasn’t that he didn’t think she was up to the job – indeed once he realised his omission he suggested that she would be by far the best person for the role. Maybe she didn’t go for a drink with him after meetings, or didn’t phone him or email him on a regular basis. Whatever the reason, she just didn’t pop into his mind when he was thinking about suitable people to chair the meeting and almost missed out on the chance to do what you need to do to be ‘influential’.

So, what’s the lesson here? I for one am going to be more careful when I think about people to speak at events or write pieces for me because I want the best people, not just those that spring to mind first. I also want to encourage more women scientists to volunteer to do this kind of thing and so will be grateful for suggestions of great and interesting female scientists to give speaking opportunities to. And I’m going to avoid attending events with all male speakers. Because while the saying might be true that empty vessels make most noise, it doesn’t seem to be holding back the men does it?

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Communicating risk and uncertainty - don't blame your audience, just communicate right.

I’ve just finished running a workshop for a group of scientists from across Europe on communicating science to policymakers. I’ll write more later about the lessons I was teaching, but first, I wanted to comment on a point that scientists raise with me time and time again training sessions like this – that it’s difficult to communicate uncertainty to non-scientists because they don’t understand risk.

I don’t know if that statement is true or not. But regardless, I do know that it’s not a helpful thought to hold onto if you want or need to communicate uncertainty effectively. Because as a communicator, while we know that the knowledge, experience, thoughts and values of our audience influence how our message is processed, we also know that there is nothing we can do about these personal influences, beyond understanding them as well as we can. To be a good communicator you have to let go of your frustration about other people’s preconceptions and instead focus on controlling the things you can control – your message, your understanding of the audience and your choice of the way you package and send the message. That way, you have the best chance of communicating well and getting your audience to understand what you have to say.

And it is possible. It’s difficult and takes time, thought and effort, but I think it is possible to communicate risk effectively to non-scientists. A good example is the work that Defra and colleagues did around the launch of the UK climate projections earlier this year.

The projections give extremely complicated statistics about the range of climate changes that the UK may experience in future and the extent to which these are supported by the latest evidence. Understanding the meaning of these projections hinges upon understanding the precise meaning of a set of probabilities. Specifically, that the percentage probability assigned to each climate scenario is a measure of how sure the researchers were that a change will happen, rather than the percentage chance of it occurring. Complicated eh? Important to get right though, because getting it wrong risked the media and public interpreting a 90% probability of a temperature rise of 4 degrees as meaning that there is a 90% chance of temperatures rising by 4 degrees (ie is highly likely), when in fact it meant that the researchers were 90% confident that the temperature rise will be less than 4 degrees– that it’s highly unlikely to be 4 degrees or higher in other words.

Determined to get this vital and powerful information right, the team involved communications experts early on and devoted significant time to drafting and drafting briefing notes and media releases. This wasn’t a half hour job, but instead took weeks and weeks of drafting, checking, consulting and redrafting until they had a way of explaining these complex statistics and probabilities clearly and simply.

The results – well you should judge for yourself, from the briefing note that we helped develop, the press release that Defra’s press office produced and of course the media coverage that it generated.