Conference coverage: opening plenary

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“We have no plans to be nice.”

Breanna Draxler

Saturday’s events kicked off with a morning plenary dubbed “A Step Toward Solutions.” In an auditorium in building 6-120 on the MIT campus, about 75 seats were filled. Most were women, with a few men interspersed. When the session kicked off at 8:45, the sugar-filled pastries apparently hadn’t kicked in yet. The atmosphere was one of pre-coffee calm.

This summit at large was in response to a standing-room-only session at the Science Writers 2013 conference in Gainesville, Fla. last November, in which gender disparities in science writing were made visible. Women, the panel showed, were coming up against unexpected barriers and not accomplishing the things one would expect in today’s age of apparent female empowerment. It’s one thing to make that kind of a statement based on anecdotal experiences, but in the months since the session, two graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a private survey for the conference to see how the data aligned with the anecdotes.

Deborah Blum, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began the 2014 summit with a general lay of the land thanks to the number-crunching of two of her graduate students: Karen Hess and Aparna Vidyasagar. The first PowerPoint slides projected promising results onto the screen: In science writing programs at schools across the country, there were far more women than men pursuing degrees in science writing in recent years. There’s no lack of interest or motivation to get into the field, then. The real question is what the field has for them when they leave the academic setting, Blum said.

From here, the graphs appeared to be less and less in women’s favor: The number of bylines in the U.S.’s top ten newspapers? 37 percent. The number of staffers in U.S. newsrooms in the past decade and a half? Again, 37 percent. Slide after slide quantified the disparity between men and women in science journalism.

And it wasn’t just in the newsroom. The discrepancies were just as apparent, if not more so, on the other side of the reporter’s notebook. In an analysis of science stories that ran in The New York Times in January and February of 2013, writers sought out 5 female sources, compared to 21 male. That meant readers heard a male voice as the scientific expert four times as often.

“It’s with that background that we wanted to then go out to the community and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Blum said.

Emily Willingham, science writer and summit organizer, then took the mic to discuss the results of a recent survey, whose aim was to gain an understanding of the attitudes, the experiences and the role of gender among science writers. The results she shared came from 422 U.S.-based science journalists, contacted through three science writing professional organizations: The National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ). The results weren’t peer-reviewed, Willingham pointed out, but they were telling.

Hess, one of the grad students who had analyzed the survey the data, said, “As a brand new science writer, I didn’t realize these issues existed to the extend that they do.” For example, 129 women had taken a mid-career break. Only 18 men had done so. But both groups said doing so had a negative impact on their work. “They became mothers?” Willingham asked with feigned surprise. “The horror.” Science journalists are also an attractive bunch, Willingham joked, because men and women both said that their appearance helped them at work.

Approximately 54 percent of female respondents and 44 percent of males reported gender bias in science writing. But the survey illuminated the fact that it was the women who were on the receiving end of the vast majority of that discrimination. Some 57 percent of women said they weren’t taken seriously at work, whereas only 5 percent of men had experienced such a thing. And 45 percent of women said they hadn’t been credited for their ideas at some point; a mere 6 percent of men reported the same. Flirtation or sexual remarks affected 45 percent of women and 18 percent of men.

Here Seth Mnookin, co-director of MIT’s graduate program in science writing and one of the summit’s hosts, chimed in. “Was anyone surprised by the results?” he asked. The general consensus: “Not at all.”

“I thought it was encouraging that so many men identified it as a problem,” said Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. But, as Willingham pointed out, “We only hear from men who give a shit.” Selection bias was apparent in the survey on many fronts. The men who took the time to fill it out were more likely to care about the issue in the first place. And the respondents weren’t particularly diverse. Three quarters of the respondents were women; a whopping 86 percent were white.

But that doesn’t discount the validity of respondents’ experiences, or the trends that they collectively showed, like the fact that far more male and female respondents reported being harassed by a subordinate than a supervisor or even a peer. For women, it was 58 percent of those who reported harassment and for men it was 41 percent. “I’m not surprised by much these days, but I’m surprised by how much harassment came from subordinates,” said Patricia Thomas, director of health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. “Who are these people? What are they thinking?”

“We have not done ourselves favors by being really nice and quiet and polite about all these events,” said Blum. “I bitched to my friends but I didn’t make a noise. By having this meeting we’re saying ‘Yes, this is a real problem and issue for all of us.’ The more we talk about it in a public sense the more of a chance we have of changing it.”

Aschwanden, another of the panelists and a Colorado-based freelancer, weighed in: “This is the environment in which I’ve lived my whole career. Most of the things I’ve faced have not really been overt.” But Aschwanden says the frustrating nature of the situation motivates her to do something about it. “We need men on our side. Most men want to do something to help. This is not just a women’s issue.”

The other panelists agreed that awareness was paramount, including Mnookin, who said he was hugely embarrassed by the fact that he hadn’t seen the gender discrimination before. “It was going on around me and with my students and I was so oblivious.”

Aschwanden said that the first step was simply recognizing that it’s a problem. “You’re not waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘How am I going to oppress women today’?” It’s easy for the people who aren’t affected by it on a daily basis to go about their days without realizing it’s happening, she said.

“You do have to be able to stand up and say I’m better than that and I deserve to be treated better than that,” Blum said. Willingham took it a step further: “Not just to the people around you, we have to say that ourselves, too.”

There was no shortage of data or enthusiasm in the room to support these ideas, but when it came to methods or actions for changing this status quo, there was no agreed-upon way to go about it. When the conversation was opened up to audience members, things started heating up.

Some said that women in science writing need to support each other. Especially freelancers who do not have the institutional support and the avenues to express grievances. But another pointed out that, according to the data, women often aren’t the ones doing the hiring. They don’t have the ability to create the necessary opportunities. It’s the people in power that need to know about these things.

As the session was winding down, one final audience member wanted to make sure she was heard: “This is a mean problem in mean industries and it’s time to start fighting back,” she said. “You should send [the results of the survey] to every fucking editor of every publication in the country. They should know that you know. Make a big ugly fuss about it. That’s the only way you’re going to get any place. You’re not going to get anywhere by being nice.”

Willingham’s response was brief but pointed: “We have no plans to be nice.”

And with that, the weekend of solution-seeking discussions began. The auditorium by this point was vibrating with action-focused energy. Even after attendees had filed out of the auditorium, they expressed strong reactions to the panel.

Shannon Palus, a freelance science journalist based in Philadelphia said, “I felt such a feeling of relief.” She described how when she tried to have these same conversations about gender bias in her undergraduate physics department she met intense resistance. She would question whether the disparities and discrimination were all in her head, and ask herself: “Is this really happening? Is this really a problem?” Her feelings after the plenary were very different; she said she felt grateful, relieved and validated that the discrimination of female science writers was finally publically recognized as a problem.

Veronica Hackethal, a health writer based in New York City, said, “Part of me is like, ‘I just want to do my work. I don’t want to talk about this,’ ” she said. “But you have to deal with this stuff, otherwise you can’t do your work.”

Rebecca Guenard, a Philadelphia-based freelancer, said she was surprised by the state of the science-writing field. When she saw the survey findings, she said, “Dear god, are we still here?” She continued, “We have a tendency to assume that bringing [gender bias] to the spotlight will take care of it. But there are things we can do. It’s B.S. and I’m not going to stand for it.”

The takeaway from the panel seemed to be this: Gender bias is deeply ingrained in us. Not just in science writing circles but in our society as a whole. In order to make any kind of meaningful change, there has to be a cultural shift. There has to be action items that will move the conversation forward. And that’s just what the remainder of the summit aimed to do.