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The Science Opinion Games: New Conversations, Same Old Voices?


“Women scientists seem to be underrepresented in science activities that make their reflections public.”

I wrote that glum-making sentence. It was in an editorial for PLOS Medicine about post-publication culture.

Cartoon of a lawyer

The studies that led me to this conclusion are cited there: under-representation of women in mixed-gender discussion (yes, men talk more), publishing articles, presenting at conferences, academic blogging, pre- and post-publication peer review.

It happens in other circles in my immediate world, too – in journalism, op-eds, and at Wikipedia. I think it’s safe to assume that studies for other non-dominant groups and other settings would find similar effects of social and professional domination by an elite.

I don’t believe there’s a single explanation for it. It’s not just that women have less time to spare, for example. There is a dense thicket of issues around us that can hem us in, but individuals aren’t affected uniformly.

I want to discuss the cultural and behavioral tangle of it here. And that’s because the internet has opened up new possibilities, even though they’re just extending the problem at the moment. Celia Ross points out in her response to my editorial:

 “I see commenting as the Judo of the scientific world where I can have a more even playing field with the big boys – and girls. It’s a wonderful advance. As a former Judoka (Judo player), I learned to use skill to grapple with much larger men in practice.”

I agree that commenting can be a great way to enter scientific discourse. Democratized accessible forums can definitely tilt the playing field – at least a little. But I think we need a triangle of change in the science opinion games: the way the game is played, the behavior of the current dominant players, and more women and other under-represented scientists to join in and reap the rewards. As Danielle Lee points out, it’s not going to happen by itself:

“Diversity should be deliberate. Inclusiveness is intentional.”

Peter Belmi argues that when faced with an organization where merit and hard work aren’t enough, and making progress requires you to maneuver and manipulate, people of lower social class may opt out. They may not want to become that person.

Let’s face it, narcissistic self-promoters can be pretty bilious, the sharp-elbowed downright odious. Scientific discourse, peer review, and internet conversations are often unpleasant, conflict-driven, and aggressive. Less tolerance and rewarding of that behavior could help cultivate a public science discussion space that’s more appealing across the board, but particularly to women as a group.

Portrait of Michelle Munyikwa
“I still have my first diary from when I was 8 years old…It’s not that I am new to blogging. It’s just the first time I am using my own name.” Michelle Munyikwa

Sharing fully in professional life and getting encouraged by others is gratifying and fun. Women still face cultural proscriptions against “pushing” their own opinions, though.

As adults, we may be under-represented in expressing our opinions in professional settings where men dominate. But not in private space. And it didn’t start out this way for us in the public space of school either. The differences aren’t great among children.

Girls are more likely to keep a diary and to blog more as teenagers. It’s not as though we don’t know how to articulate our thoughts. Somewhere along the way, too many of us lose sight of the value of what we have to say.

Men need to become less comfortable with the status quo of our relative silence and with taking up so much space. It wears me down, sitting for hours on end at conferences hearing few female voices from the podium or questions from the floor, for example. Everyone should be fed up with it. And women more comfortable with breaking through.

I know it’s not always easy to get up and ask that question, give that talk, write and submit a comment, blog post, or article, or deal with peer review. The more of it we see, though, and the more examples of women with different styles participating, the easier it will get for us to find our own style and level of comfort.


Diagram showing how lack of diversity over-samples for mediocrity


Expressing your opinion is central to the progress of knowledge in most of science. So the consequences for the public interest of scientific discourse being neither fully inclusive nor a meritocracy are serious. It’s central to our personal progress in science as well. Being heard and visible are critical to being sought out for opportunities – including forming serendipitous new collaborations. Sharing our interpretations and opinions is such an integral part of science and working in groups, that to be hobbled here is to be relegated to the sidelines at almost all levels.

A lot of science is solitary and introspective, yes. But the social dimension is elemental, too. And we create and re-create that social reality, every day. Who are you going to encourage today?

I followed up this post by doing a deep dive into the evidence about anonymity and peer review, including its impact on women.



A subsequent post from me: 7 Tips for Women at Science Conferences

Finding your voice – views on how introverted scientists can succeed

Elizabeth Wager, Fiona Godlee, Tom Jefferson’s How To Survive Peer Review [PDF]

Eric Grollman’s 101 big and small ways to make a difference in academia

Leslie Hawthorn’s slide deck Checking Your Privilege: A How-To for Hard Things

Jonathan Eisen’s Some suggestions for having diverse speakers at meetings (and more posts on women in STEM)

David Shiffman’s 10 Tips for grad students to make the most of a scientific conference and look below for the “comments” button with more great tips

Dorothy Bishop’s A gentle introduction to Twitter for the apprehensive academic

On Twitter and interested in getting a rough gauge of whose voices you’re amplifying? Twee-Q measures your retweeting habits.

And my PLOS Medicine editorial on post-publication culture.

The cartoons/images in this post are my own (CC-NC license): more at Statistically Funny. The quote by Michelle Munyikwa comes from an interview with her when she was guest blogged at Absolutely Maybe.


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



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