Is covering science and technology in journalism culturally a male thing? This absolutely shouldn’t be the case and perhaps it’s not. But when a popular science Facebook page curator, Elise Andrew, joined Twitter a few weeks ago using a personal photo of herself, her fans were shocked and pleasantly surprised to find out that she was a young woman. It could be that her 4.5 million fans on Facebook assume that the profanity used in the page’s title isn’t quite lady-like and expected a man to be behind the carefully curated, thoughtful science posts. Or is there a real bias and stereotype for journalists and social media influencers to cover certain topics?
Helping out with this question are a handful of female science journalists who can give a clearer perspective while reflecting on their personal experiences in the field.
Associate editor of science at Business Insider, Dina Spector, didn’t have a strong background in science when she joined the site. She started off writing general interest content on topics of lifestyle, tech and everything in between. She found herself wanting to carve a niche for herself and wrote more and more on science, especially space. Reader interest in science-related articles then turned into the launch of a science section last July, where she became the first science reporter.
“When I mention I’m a science writer, some people may look surprised. I don’t know if that’s because I am a woman or because I simply don’t reek science,” she quipped. “I am pretty new to the game…but I would hope someone doesn’t think less of my articles because I am a woman. If you want to judge me, nit-pick my writing ability or experience,” Spector said.
Jennifer “Jef” Akst, senior editor at The Scientist, said she never experienced any discrimination and even feels like it’s a female-dominated field. According to the National Science Foundation, she is correct. In just Biology, Ph.D.’s earned by women were at 52.5 percent in 2010 compared to their male counterparts, up from 33.7 percent in 1991.
Science editor at Boing Boing and science columnist for The New York Times Magazine, Maggie Koerth-Baker, agreed that a stigma does not lie amongst colleagues and other editors. Rather, she will sometimes get feedback from readers that may be borderline sexist and demeaning.
“Occasionally, you’ll get readers that will say things like, ‘Oh, your husband must be so lucky’ or that kind of stuff,” Koerth-Baker said. “Or they’ll try to talk down on me what I write about. But that’s the worst of it.”
Sharon Begley, senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, joked that when she joined Newsweek as a science researcher back in the “Mesozoic” period, she felt the discrimination she faced was much more age-related. “I was Newsweek’s first woman science editor, first woman science columnist, first science columnist at The Wall Street Journal, so it’s hard to point to much sex discrimination,” Begley said.
It seems then the stereotype may lie hidden within the general public, rather than those working in the field. And it may be a minority of the overall mindset.
Cultural ramifications aside, the notion of covering science has its own challenges. With the complexities of any given science topic, research and thorough reporting is a must.
“I love the broad range of topics within science that I can cover – everything from space to climate change to health,” Spector said. “It can be overwhelming to feel like you have to be a mini-expert on all these varied topics. It’s hard to be an astrophysicist, geologist, biologist, chemist, archaeologist, etc. sometimes all in one day. I lean on these real experts for help, so I’m learning something new every day.”
Akst also finds experts to be very helpful in researching and developing a story. “Delving into an entirely new topic can be difficult, but I find that scientists are generally very open to speaking with me and helping me learn,” she said.
For Koerth-Baker and others in her field, it can be difficult to know where to start. “You know you’re interested in this thing, but you don’t really know where the story is yet and there’s so much information and so many people involved that is hard to figure out where to take the first bite off,” she said.
And for Begley, her biggest challenge is “dealing with scientifically clueless editors,” but enjoys “untangling important subjects for interested readers.”
Along with the various challenges these women face, they are rewarded with a gratifying experience through their passion for the topic.
Fascinated by archeology and neurology at a young age, Koerth-Baker decided after journalism school that science was a topic she’ll always want to be a part of. “[Covering science] allows me to learn more of my world and what’s happening and how things work,” she said. “I feel like I kind of get to play and it’s my job. That’s absolutely fantastic for me.”
After Akst completed her master’s degree in biology at Indiana University, she joined The Scientist as an intern in May 2009 and has worked her way up to her current role as senior editor. “I love to learn, and I’ve found that covering science affords me the opportunity to do just that, much more than research ever did.”
Likewise for Begley, it was a no-brainer on terms of her profession. “This was my choice [of coverage] from the start, and I can’t see myself ever not covering science,” Begley said.
Clearly, passion for science isn’t gender specific, as we all want to explore our curiosity for the unknown. Women have always been a part of this type of journalism; it’s just become more noticeable to readers as social media identity has put science and other topical journalists under the microscope.
Jef Akst; senior editor, The Scientist
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