Blogging out of Balance

Research Blogging / by Dave Munger /

Several independent assessments have reached identical conclusions: In the science blogosphere, men significantly outnumber women. Is this evidence of discrimination?

Credit: Flickr user jmurawski

In 2005, when Janet Stemwedel started her blog Adventures in Ethics in Science, she used the pseudonym “Dr. Free-Ride.” The San Jose State University philosopher wrote about pertinent issues in academic life and science ethics, combining personal anecdote with scientific research and reasoning. “I was routinely gendered as male by my readers,” she says, and her arguments were taken seriously. But a year later, when she began blogging under her own name, “it seemed as if some readers were more comfortable dismissing my blog as not serious, not scientific enough,” even though, to her mind, her posts focused more on straight science than before.

It’s in this context that Jennifer Rohn, an editor and cell biologist at University College London, made a small blog post that had a huge impact. She posted a simple graph showing the number of male and female bloggers on four very high-profile science blogging networks associated with well-known publications: Wired, Discover Magazine, PLoS, and The Guardian. Women, it seemed, were outnumbered nearly three-to-one. The post attracted dozens of comments and initiated a movement to identify as many science blogs by women as possible. British science writer Martin Robbins began compiling the list on his blog at The Guardian, building it to 131 blogs by the time this column went into production. If so many great science blogs are written by women, why are there only eleven blogs written by women on the highest-profile blogging networks?

As editor of ResearchBlogging.org, I have access to its database, so I did a little investigation into the implications of Rohn and Robbins’ work.

Credit: Dave Munger

This graph breaks down by gender the four blogging networks Rohn cites, and compares them to the much larger stable of active bloggers at ResearchBlogging. Even though ResearchBlogging allows any blogger to register and only rejects a small portion of applicants when they don’t follow its guidelines, the gender ratio there closely mirrors the other networks.

While Robbins correctly notes there are hundreds of female science bloggers—there are at least 230 on ResearchBlogging alone—our data suggests that there are many more males. Although it’s not encyclopedic, ResearchBlogging has the largest database of science bloggers that I am aware of, with over 1,400 registered blogs, over 850 of which are active (the number is smaller on the graph because I omitted older blogs and blogs in certain languages where it was difficult to determine author gender). But maybe our database is not a representative sample of science bloggers. Though no complete survey of the science blogosphere exists, a team led by UNC-Charlotte geologist Anne Jefferson claims that there are at least 250 blogs on geoscience alone. That compares to 30 in ResearchBlogging—so it’s possible to extrapolate that number and argue that ResearchBlogging represents just 12 percent of all science blogs. Still, out of those 250, Jefferson’s team only identified 35 women geobloggers, again suggesting that, in general, men may indeed dramatically outnumber women blogging about science.

Could the disparity in numbers of bloggers be related to a difference in the underlying population of scientists? A recent report (PDF) by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) showed that in 2009, women received more PhDs than men in the U.S. But do those numbers hold for science PhDs as well?

Credit: Dave Munger

While men do slightly outnumber women in science, math, and engineering PhDs, the disparity in numbers is much smaller than the disparity we see on the major blogging networks, including ResearchBlogging, where male bloggers outnumber female bloggers by over three to one in the same fields as the CGS report.

Of course, even though women have nearly drawn equal with men in earning science PhDs, men still far outnumber women in tenured- and tenure-track positions. At MIT, for example, a 2006 report found no department with more than 30 percent women faculty, and just three of six with more than 20 percent women. Could this male dominance in the upper echelons of academe be discouraging women from blogging?

Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, recalls her transition from staying out of the limelight, reading academic blogs, to reading blogs focusing solely on science—and writing her own blog. The academic blogs she had been reading were written primarily by women, and discussed career and personal issues along with science. The science-blogging world, by contrast, was dominated by male voices. She thinks this may lead to a hostile environment for women bloggers. Women worry a lot about being attacked and threatened online: “It’s not just a fear of these things, it’s that these things actually happen,” Clancy says. “Women are attacked for taking a stand.” Clancy also resisted starting her own blog for years because she didn’t think her colleagues would approve. She finally began blogging because she felt obligated to as a public service—she had seen too many students ill-informed about science—but she’s still not convinced that it will help advance her career.

But even if raw numbers of male bloggers exceed females, wouldn’t it still be possible for the highest-profile blogging networks to select more female bloggers out of the hundreds of bloggers available for their few slots? Rohn thinks so: “I don’t think anything in this world has to be 50:50, but a network like Wired or Discover Magazine could surely have done better. If you look at a field like life sciences, there are more women than men at the younger levels.” (I should point out that for ResearchBlogging.org in life sciences, male bloggers still outnumber females by about 2:1—a bit better than the high-profile networks, but not much.)

I contacted representatives of all four networks, and The Guardian and PLoS said they made significant efforts to recruit a diverse set of bloggers. Discover Magazine and Wired said they simply chose the best available bloggers, without regard to gender or other factors. I also asked two high-profile independent bloggers if they had been recruited by blogging networks. Science writer Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, says that she has been approached by all the major networks, but hasn’t had time to decide if she wants to join one of them. Val Jones, television and radio personality and proprietor of Better Health, says she hasn’t been approached at all.

In the aggregate, it seems clear that women are—whether actively or tacitly—discouraged from blogging about science. Aside from a few superstars like Skloot (who is in such demand that she’s been on a non-stop international book tour for the better part of a year), I’ve seen little evidence to convince me otherwise. Despite the fact that women are getting science PhDs in nearly the same numbers as men, they are blogging much less. I even looked at the average number of posts about peer-reviewed research they had done, and again, men outpaced women by nearly 50 percent, which means men may have written as many as 80 percent of the posts on ResearchBlogging.org. Even more strikingly, women may be discouraged from pursuing academic careers at all—from 1999 to 2003, 32 percent of chemistry PhDs were women, but only 18 percent of applications to tenure-track positions came from women.

What are the implications of a world where relatively few women blog, at every level? Stemwedel offers some key points to consider: “For readers, one of the implications is simply that there aren’t as many voices and views represented in what there is to read as there might be. For the woman toiling away in a male-dominated scientific field without a female support network, finding the blogs of women in her field, going through the same struggles—that makes a difference.” How can we make a difference in the number of women bloggers? We can start by reading the ones that are already there—check out some of the blogs on Martin’s list—or the list I’ve posted on ResearchBlogging.org.

Dave Munger is editor of ResearchBlogging.org, where you can find thousands of blog posts on this and myriad other topics. Each week, he writes about recent posts on peer-reviewed research from across the blogosphere. See previous Research Blogging columns »

 

Originally published September 22, 2010

Tags bias communication competition identity public perception

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