Interview with Jennifer Rohn

News, Opinion 45 Comments
By Dave Munger

Yesterday’s column on Seed attracted a lot of attention — but for space reasons I had to leave a lot out. I conducted several extended interviews, so I thought I’d post their transcripts here.

First, Jennifer Rohn. Her post inspired the column and generated dozens of comments and tweets. Rohn is a post-doctoral fellow at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London. In her spare time she is also a novelist, science journalist, and broadcaster. She blogs about the scientific life at Mind The Gap.

Dave Munger: What inspired you to make your post about the representation of women in high-profile science blogs? Did you expect the kind of response your post received?

Jennifer Rohn: High-profile blogging networks — in other words, the assemblage of “top” bloggers into exclusive groups on established media outlets such as newspaper and magazine websites — are suddenly all the rage in the wake of the Pepsico scandal at ScienceBlogs. I noticed that many of the bloggers poached for these new networks were male, but it wasn’t until Wired network went live that it occurred to me that the ratios might actually be quite skewed. I tallied a few of them in a graph and there did seem to be a striking trend. Curious what others would make of it — indeed, curious if anyone else had even noticed — I posted the graph on my blog without any commentary, as the observation seemed to speak for itself. I merely included a one-liner inviting discussion about the trend. I was very surprised by the attention it got, but pleased with the resulting debate, which on the whole was reasoned and civilized. And I was especially happy that Martin Robbins (one of those high-profile male bloggers) highlighted the post on his own Guardian blog, which resulted in a great crowd-sourced list of female bloggers, and yet more insightful discussion.

These discussions resulted in several outstanding questions which need to be answered before we can understand the skewed ratios. Are these ratios merely reflective of the ratio of science bloggers overall? (i.e., there might just be a lot more men doing it; no one seems to have good figures.) Did the media outlets ask a more balanced group, but women were more likely to decline? (The idea here is that women might like being independent, or might not like the increased aggression that a high-profile blog can sometimes attract in the comment thread; or might be too busy, as they often have more child-care or housekeeping duties than their male counterparts.) Were women just not poached as frequently because female bloggers as a whole aren’t as well known (a PR issue), or aren’t perceived as being as good (a subconscious discrimination issue)? Or, as David Dobbs noted, was there just a mad scramble to poach the departed ScienceBlogs writers, the pool of which was already quite skewed? Or is it a combination of factors?

Munger: What do you think is the most important implication of the fact that in the highest-profile science blogging networks, women are dramatically outnumbered by men?

Rohn: Well, I’m a female blogger, so the message it sends to me is that science blogging is a man’s world — for whatever reason. I’m old and confident enough not to be put off by this or let it stand in the way of continuing to try to get my messages out to the widest possible audience, but it probably could discourage new female bloggers, who might not be aware of the very rich diversity of the international independent blogger community which existed long before these high-octane platforms came along. It might also reinforce, to the non-science world, that writing about science — and perhaps, that science itself — is male-dominated. People in the discussion have noted that science pundits are overwhelmingly male, as are general science writers, authors of pop-sci books and professors in academia — so nothing hew here, really.

Munger: You run a science website, LabLit, which also has more male contributors than female contributors. What kind of efforts did you make in balancing the genders of the voices appearing on the site?

Rohn: LabLit now runs entirely on volunteer contributions, in which readers are invited to submit content. About 40% of our authors are female so far, so it could be better, but thankfully isn’t scandalous. Where you do see a skew is among our regular contributors – those authors who have the time and energy to submit multiple times. These are mostly male, for whatever reason. When I have time, I try to redress the balance by doing some sneaky commissioning from women, but they often say they are too busy.

I do think it’s very important for this discussion, though, to stress that we are talking about the poaching of existing bloggers for new venues; this is very different from asking a busy person to contribute something to a magazine in an act which will be, by definition, extra work. In contrast, a female science blogger is presumably blogging because she likes to write, has time to write, and probably would like her message to reach more people. So the real question to ask is, why aren’t talented, popular female bloggers appearing on these new platforms?

Munger: Ideally, should women be represented by equal numbers of bloggers as men? Or should gender balance match the actual gender balance in the fields they cover? Or would it be adequate merely to have improved numbers?

Rohn: I don’t think anything in this world has to be 50:50, but a network like Wired or Discovery could surely have done better. If you look at a field like life sciences, there are more women than men at the younger levels — the severe attrition of women from academic positions doesn’t start until the assistant professor level. (Also, a number of science bloggers have left academia, so you can’t discount these from the pool.) I don’t think anyone would argue claim, on average, that men write better than women. So if the gender balance in the life sciences blogging community isn’t 50:50, high-power or otherwise, I’d like to know why. (Again, I’ve yet to see any numbers.) In fields where women are less likely to research, it would be natural to have fewer of them blogging about it.

Munger: Do you think women face unique difficulties in blogging?

Rohn: I’ve mentioned a few possibilities above. Some women in the discussion mentioned that they did the lion’s share of childcare and housework, so it was difficult to find the time. Others mentioned that they didn’t like the aggression in commenting threads — which often, they said, seemed to be nastier than what got flung around underneath a man’s blog. (I’ve certainly noticed that there is a certain class of anonymous male commentor who seems affronted at the thought of any woman having an opinion, and whose comments can be thinly veiled sexist abuse.) I also think it’s more difficult for women to achieve a high public profile than it is for men. Here in the UK we’re organizing a march for science funding, and the discussion turned to what high-profile, media savvy scientists we could enlist to support our cause. We couldn’t think of a single women in the same celebrity league as Stephen Hawking, and only one in the slightly less celestial tier of Brian Cox. I think it’s safe to generalize that women scientists don’t tend to become as celebrated in the scientific world. So science bloggers might suffer from a similar problem. Whether this is down to less self-promotion on their part, or not being taken as seriously, or having less time to get their name out there, are open questions.

Munger: My analysis of the ResearchBlogging database suggests that many fewer
women than men sign up for our service. Do you think there are fewer
female science bloggers than males? Any guesses as to why?

Rohn: ResearchBlogging aggregates blog posts solely about papers, right? I have noticed — though I don’t have numbers — that a number of women bloggers tend to like to blog about their lives in science instead of the papers of others. That’s certainly my modus operandi. So maybe they’d rather read more about that as well. Could it be that more men blog about, and read about, facts and figures, and this sort of journalistic style is what is more prized by the big networks? It certainly would be interesting to see some research into those sorts of numbers. But I’m just wildly speculating here.

Munger: Do you think there is a difference in how men and women promote their blogs? If so, what’s the difference?

Rohn: I’m on Twitter and I haven’t seen much difference in that arena — we all tweet our latest posts. But I confess I’ve not even thought about how I might promote it any other way — any men out there want to share their tips? ;-) Actually, I think it comes down to self-promotion again. The more well-known you are, the more likely it is that people will know about your blog, read it and recommend it to others. Maybe as a group women need to be a bit less shy about that sort of thing.

Note: Tomorrow, I’ll post my interview with Martin Robbins, followed on Tuesday by Janet Stemwedel. I don’t have a complete transcript for my interview with Kathryn Clancy, conducted by telephone, but she has written a blog post here that covers most of the issues we discussed.

Update 9/23/10 12:46 p.m.: Edited for clarity.

45 Responses to “Interview with Jennifer Rohn”

  1. Scicurious Says:
    September 23rd, 2010 at 11:47 am

    I do wonder if some of the lack of women on the larger science blogging networks (Discover or Wired) has to do with the larger proportion of women bloggers who are pseudonymous? Do these large networks take Pseud bloggers? I know the Guardian does because the lovely Grrl is there, but what about the other ones? I understand that this may be an effort to make the blog networks look for professional, but it may unintentionally exclude bloggers which are blogging pseudoynmously.

  2. GrrlScientist Says:
    September 23rd, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    actually, the stats i’ve seen show the highest attrition rate for women in the sciences is during the postdoc years, and the biggest loss is after the first postdoc, before women make it into the tenure track.

  3. Jennifer Rohn Says:
    September 26th, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Grrl – that’s exactly what I meant. I meant, the attrition starts at the level of the first lab head position, i.e. they don’t make it that far. Sorry for the lack of clarity in my language there.

  4. Susan @WomenPlanetSci Says:
    September 26th, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    But is inclusion in a blogging network an indicator of quality or simply an easier way to promote your blog? And does it matter which network one chooses? I’m a science blogger who was asked to join a network in August, but after some discussion, I put off the decision, as I was gaining traction under my own url, with several hundred visits/day, a number that I was quite happy with.

    It’s ironic, I suppose, as I write about women in science, but I was not jumping to join a network without fully understanding the benefits I’d gain in exhange for giving up the control that I had sought for years in someone else’s employ….

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