Interview with Janet Stemwedel

News, Opinion 27 Comments
By Dave Munger

Last week’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.

Janet Stemwedel is Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University, who blogs about issues of ethics in science, science careers, and science education at Adventures in Ethics and Science.

Dave Munger: What are the implications of the apparent gender disparity in science blogging? If you see it as a problem, do you have any examples of the negative effects?

Janet Stemwedel: It strikes me that there are implications on the producer side (for the people blogging, whether in networks or as independent agents in the scientific quarter of blogtopia) and on the consumer side (for readers).

For the woman who’s blogging science, being so outnumbered by male bloggers can mean that you spend a lot more time considering whether you want to blog about a particular issue that your male brethren are likely to ignore (or plow into without necessarily thinking through the complexities that you’ve thought to death, because they’re part of your daily experience). Or whether you can *not* blog about those issues this time (even though you have other things you’d rather be blogging), because if a woman in the science blogosphere doesn’t blog them, they might not get blogged at all. I suspect that women also have to spend more time defending their experience of their own lives when they share it on-blog than men do — because this weird thing happens when male commenters and other bloggers who are male will respond to your posts with, “It couldn’t possibly have been that way!” or “Well, I’ve never noticed anything like that where I am, so it can’t have happened.”

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. Given the size of the blogosphere as a whole, that might not seem like a serious problem, but for the woman toiling away in a male dominated scientific field without a female support network in her three-dimensional world, finding the blogs of women in her field (or a field that sounds a lot like hers), going through the same struggles — that makes a difference. For the mom looking for information about the health impact of vaccinations, who doesn’t want snake oil but doesn’t want to be made to feel like an idiot, finding the blogs of scientists and doctors and other rational folks who are also moms makes a difference. The flash of recognition, that the people blogging about stuff that may be beyond your area of expertise are still like you in ways that make you feel able to related and invited to read more — that matters.

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?

Stemwedel: I think my vision of an ideal situation would be for everyone who has something to say on a blog to find a place in blogtopia — including finding his or her natural audience and bloggy peer group. Not everyone wants to blog, and I’d hate to have people feel like they have to, whether to improve gender balance, or coverage of a particular subject or discipline, or anything else.

Also, since most of us have a little something called a life offline, it’s not obvious that you could easily recruit the “missing” female blogging representatives even for a field with equal gender representation in the 3-dimensional world.

Still, I think it would be good for blogging networks especially to try harder and find more women who are blogging (because they are out there, and many of them are fabulous). Indeed, I suspect the women who are blogging in fields where women are extremely underrepresented may be writing some of the most interesting stuff — so being content with a bloggy representative of the majority practitioner of that field is opting out of lots of good stories that a blog network’s readers might want to read.

Munger: Do you think women face unique difficulties in science blogging? If so, what are they?

Stemwedel: We seem to have to spend a lot of time reminding our readers (including our lay readers) that we actually know what the heck we’re talking about — including when we’re blogging very basic knowledge from our field. I don’t know if this is a unique problem for women science bloggers, but the activation energy for readers (and other bloggers) to assume that we’re confused, mistaken, or just plain dumb is a lot lower.

Also, I reckon we get a lot more sexualized (and threatening) comments and private emails from blog readers.

Munger: Do women blog differently from men? Is this a feature or a bug?

Stemwedel: I don’t think they necessarily do, but rather are perceived as doing so.

For about a year I was blogging pseudonymously (as Dr. Free-Ride), and I was routinely gendered as male by my readers. I don’t think my blogging voice, or the subject matter I took on, was markedly different then, but people seemed to take me more seriously. But then, when I started blogging under my own name (with my academic rank and institutional affiliation in the open, available for anyone to verify), it seemed as if some readers were more comfortable dismissing my blog as not serious, not scientific enough (even though I was blogging more straight science than I had before). It’s funny how a feminine name and a profile picture can make that big of a difference.

So, it’s really not the blogging style that I think is at issue — it’s the range of experiences that are being represented by the women and men blogging in their multitude of styles.

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?

Stemwedel: I have no good census data from the blogosphere as a whole or the scientific sector of it, so your guess is as good as mine.

I do have some hunches about the representation skew at ResearchBlogging.

One is that a lot of women who blog science are specifically blogging about their daily experiences as a women in a field that isn’t necessarily brimming with women at every level of the power structure. In other words, their blogging focus is being a scientist rather than on cool scientific findings that have been announced in the literature.

For related reasons, lots of the women science bloggers use pseudonyms (the better to process their experience without having that processing come back to bite them at work). Blogging cool new papers in your field seems like it has the potential to blow one’s cover.

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

Stemwedel: Could be. Part of it may be that fewer women are blogging to seek attention than to seek community — either intellectual community, or people who will help them strategize the next career step, or what have you. Another part may be that they just have more stuff to do in their offline lives. (Goodness knows there are plenty of university and professional committees that seem always to want another woman on them.)

Note: Last week I posted interviews with Jennifer Rohn and Martin Robbins. 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.

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