23 March 2015

The clothes don’t make the scientist

Posted by Jessica Ball

I'm just as much a scientist in field gear as a dress - and neither is relevant in media coverage unless I'm talking about why I'm wearing the field gear!

I’m just as much a scientist in field gear as a dress – and neither is relevant in media coverage unless I’m talking about why I’m wearing the field gear!

Those of you who saw my somewhat exasperated tweets last week know that I was reacting to this story on the Scientific American Voices Blog about how female scientists are portrayed in media coverage. (Answer: Superficially and with far too much attention to appearances). I was going to write something cool about my hydrothermal system models this week, but then I got irritated by this topic (and woken up far too early by a fire alarm in my apartment complex), so you’ll have to wait until later this week for that.

As a scientist and a woman, I despise the kind of lazy reporting the SciAm story talks about. Newspapers are often particularly guilty of this. Back when I lived in DC I used to read the Washington Post, and there were often days when I would throw it aside in disgust because a front-page article about a woman focused first on her looks and second on the actual story. My anecdotal experience (which is backed up by systematic research) is that this happens way too much. I see an article about some new discovery, the author’s gone and interviewed the scientist who made it, and if it’s a woman, for some unfathomable reason I have to slog through a whole paragraph of nonsense about her blouse and her haircut. As a reader I find it insulting to both me and the person being interviewed.

So if you are a journalist of any kind and you’re doing a story about ANY scientist, here’s something you should know before you even THINK about conducting an interview: Your readers DO NOT need to see commentary about how this person dresses or looks. If they’re presenting themselves professionally and in an appropriate manner for the situation in which you’re interviewing them, this should be a complete non-issue. I say this also to remind myself. I rarely lead off with a physical description of people I talk to, but if I’m ever tempted to I’d better think really hard about whether it’s pertinent.

It doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman.It doesn’t matter what color or style their shirt is. It doesn’t matter if they’re in trousers or a skirt or a dress. It doesn’t matter if they’re wearing makeup or not. It doesn’t matter if their hair is boring or dyed in neon colors or nonexistent (hey, maybe they got tired of it and shaved it off). None of these things have anything to do with science. If you are discussing someone’s clothing, it had better darn well be because they’re wearing field or safety gear and they’re explaining why they use it, or because they draw attention to their clothing on purpose. (We do love to wear science-y patterned clothes and funny t-shirts on occasion – Neil deGrasse Tyson immediately comes to mind, and so does Dr. Tracy Gregg, a planetary volcanologist at UB who loves to make and wear awesome space-y skirts). If you want to give a description that conveys how enthusiastic or animated or excited someone is about their science, great! That sort of thing humanizes your subject and lets others relate to them. You know what doesn’t? A whole paragraph of fashion critique.

When you profile a woman, show us a picture – just like you do for the men – and leave it at that. Your readers can SEE what your subject looks like. We don’t want the play-by-play on whether their haircut is flattering. If it never occurs to you to write it about a man, you shouldn’t be writing it about a woman. Yes, this requires a certain amount of concentration, because it’s very easy to slip into the habit of ‘setting the scene’ by describing your subject’s appearance, but it’s important. If you’re tempted, think very hard about how you’re doing it – and if it serves no purpose relevant to the science you’re covering, don’t.

We need more coverage of women in science, because the occasional Google Doodle (check out today’s, by the way) isn’t enough. But when we talk about these women, we need to remember to focus on the science and not the sartorial.