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?