26 January 2011
Why is Rebecca Skloot less lauded than male science writers like Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer? It certainly isn’t her book sales or the quality of her writing. Her narrative non-fiction book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is in the top 100 bestselling paperbacks on Amazon. It won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize this year. It’s by far the best popular science book I’ve read. It may be the best popular science book ever written. Yet poor Rebecca doesn’t get anywhere like the recognition of the big beasts of the science writing world. Why is that? Is it ‘cos she is a girl? And – if so – why does gender matter?
I’ve volunteered to start an open thread to discuss this. I’ll kick this off by being deliberately provocative – apologies for the lack of quotes or linkage, I’m writing fast. But I’ve got some ill-considered ideas why women science writers might be – on average – less prominent than the boys. I don’t think we’ve got the time to promote ourselves like the guys and – if we do – we’re not regarded as science writers anymore. All this is, of course, dependent on my entirely sexist, evidence-free and personal theories about the differences between the average guy and the average gal.
Let me explain. First, the time issue. I think guys are better at marketing themselves because they’ve got more time. I can’t remember where (can someone find a link?), but someone argued Ed Yong spends lots of time on Twitter – this raises his profile among people who write lists of great science writers. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but Rebecca doesn’t spend that amount of time online.
I can’t spend that amount of time tweeting either. One reason is I’m a part-time housewife trying to do a full-time job. I’m not the only woman in this position. Women do more housework than men. We do the bulk of childcare and – if we’re in academic careers – we’re traditionally more likely to trail a guy around. We’re more likely to have a partner who earns more than us so we’ve got an incentive to cheerlead his career and compromise our own.
What’s more, science writing can be a flexible occupation with low pay compared to technical jobs. This means it attracts geek girls for whom money is less valuable than part-time hours and home working. And it doesn’t matter how good these women are, they’re never going to have the same support at home as a guy working full-time who is the breadwinner. Their career isn’t the most important thing in the household. Neither do they have as much time to market themselves and get onto the great science writing lists.
Here’s the really controversial bit. I worry topics women tend to write about often don’t count as science writing. So – even if women succeed as writers – they can’t succeed as science writers. Let me explain. There are many more female medical scientists than physicists – I don’t know why. If a female medical scientist writes about medical, evidence-based interventions in childbirth – that’s a health story. Despite it involving science, it counts as health. There’s no shortage of female health writers.
Another example – Rebecca Skloot’s Henrietta Lacks. It’s an amazing book, but it’s not A Brief History of Time – no stats, space travel or difficult technical concepts. It’s about a woman dying and her family. There’s lots of emotion and, well, girly stuff. It just happens to be about a science subject. It’s easy to imagine someone going “Well, that’s not a science book – it’s a biography or a history book”.
There’s another reason why women’s writing doesn’t look as much like ‘science writing’. Most science and technology magazines are aimed at blokes because most of their readers are blokes (I can provide reader profiles – it’s true – but do the male readers or the male-focused articles come first?). Take this technology magazine, Stuff – what a visually-striking example! Among the ‘stuff’ on the front cover is a scantily-clad woman. Stuff is not aimed at a female audience. And because most mainstream science and technology writing is aimed at guys, writing by guys for guys becomes what people expect good science writing to look like.
Unfortunately, women don’t think this way. Don’t believe me? Don’t scientific advances can be gendered? Well, here’s an example – this wonderful shimmery material produced by scientists at the University of Cambridge. I’ve seen this stuff in action – it’s brilliant. It looks like silly putty, but it changes colour with temperature and as you move. My first thought was “gimme a swimsuit like this – I’d shimmer and ripple like a tropical fish”. I wanted to write an article about being able to pop into Topshop and buy a technicolour bikini.
Then I realised I couldn’t write for a science magazine about the joy of multicoloured swimsuits because the average reader is a bloke. I’d have to write about security features on plastic cards (yawn) or some other non-gendered activity. If I wanted to write about the science of fashion, I’d have to write for a magazine that didn’t have a average reader who was male and aged 30 – 45. This wouldn’t be a typical science magazine – it’d be Vogue. But would I get kudos as a science writer if I was writing about scientific discoveries for Vogue? I think not.