On Imbalance And Underrepresentation

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | December 8, 2009 12:35 pm

Saturday evening I published a few lines about how Richard Dawkins’ Oxford book of modern science writing features just 2.5 out of 83 essays by women. I wasn’t particularly surprised or harsh in tone, as the purpose was mainly to make the point out that we have a lot of work to do toward breaking through the gender divide across the sciences. I have written extensively on this topic in the past and continue to believe we will not achieve balance unless the institutional framework of academia fundamentally changes. Dawkins responded:

It is not an anthology of “science writing”…[but] a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.

Later in comments, he also clarified that the view from Oxford is that the twentieth century is modern. However, while undoubtedly, the book includes an excellent collection of essays, the lack of female contributors matters because it perpetuates underrepresentation. And Tara is right: Science is, unfortunately, often a boys club. It needn’t be, but a shift in attitudes takes time. Mike Dunford added:

I am not disappointed because Dawkins failed to bend over backward to make sure that the scientists included in his anthology matched some sort of set of diversity statistics. I am disappointed because Richard Dawkins, a man who is as gifted and talented a communicator of science as anyone alive today, clearly failed to consider the message that his choice of authors might send to quite a few of his readers, and the good that might come from putting a bit of thought into finding even one or two more talented scientists to include in the anthology who were not white men.

DrugMonkey and drdrA feel similarly, while a post by Miranda objects to ‘inclusion for inclusion’s sake’ and Dawkins agrees. Of course, inclusion for inclusion’s sake would be ridiculous and there are many, many layers to this issue. Most of all I’m glad it’s being discussed around the internet and hope the conversation continues.

What I know for sure is that there are certainly more than 2.5 noteworthy female scientists who have written extraordinary essays over the past century making great contributions in science–some even leading to a paradigm shift in her respective field. Yes, perhaps, they often did not garner the same level of attention and recognition as male colleagues, but I argue it was often due to oversight, rather than lack of skill, creativity, or curiosity.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture

Comments (41)

Links to this Post

  1. Defending Dawkins « Comrade PhysioProf | December 9, 2009
  1. Guy

    Well, clearly the trend is there being more college educated women and women scientists. It is just a matter of time before they get a greater share of the attention for their work.

  2. Pete

    Even 2-3 more contributions would have been easy.

  3. goodfaith

    This just proves what people already suspected, Dawkins is a mysoginistic old fart.

  4. Passerby

    I think Dawkins’s response sums it up perfectly and I think some people are reading too much into this. If you want to lament the fact that there are not as many women in science and science writing as men, fine, it’s completely justified and a sad state of affairs which we should all strive to improve.

    But if you consider the number of people who were both great scientists and great writers in the twentieth century, for whatever reason, the proportion of women is indeed much lesser than men, although the proportion is also greater than 2.5/83. It’s a rather simple fact that is more or less accurately reflected in Dawkins’s choice of authors. I don’t see why Dawkins should be criticized (apart from maybe the minor quantitative criticism about including 2-3 more female writers); what should be criticized are the factors leading to this low proportion and that’s all.

  5. Passerby

    And seriously, if someone is so concerned, they should really have an anthology of great women science writers/scientists from the twentieth century. This would *not* be inclusion for inclusion’s sake. After all Sharon Bertsch McGrayne did pen the marvelous “Nobel Prize Women in Science” which tells us much about the extraordinary hardships women scientists had to suffer compared to men. If this would have been inclusion for inclusion’s sake and had not been written, we would not really have known about these remarkable women. I suggest a similar thing should be done with a science anthology.

  6. Harman Smith

    Well this is not an easy subject. I don’t think Richard Dawkins made a mistake by disregarding the gender gap. Why? Because great scientists in the 20th century, that also wrote nicely, were predominantly male. If you looked more closely, I have no doubt you’d find more women (that were overlooked). But why would you look more closely in the first place? The fact remains that, historically speaking, the best scientists were men. I have no doubt that women can be awesome scientists—and ARE awesome scientists. If Richard Dawkins wanted to include more women in his book, he’d have an agenda (of trying to promote women in science). Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But then it is no longer “The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing”. It becomes “The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing & Science Writing by Outstanding Female Scientists Who Were Overlooked”.

    I guess I should say that I like the idea of more women in science, mainly because that’s how I think you can greatly increase the amount of scientists (which is what the world desperately needs right now), but I’d probably still be labeled as a sexist/misogynist anyway (see: #3).

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Hey no offense, but write your own damn book.

    In fact, I heartily recommend it. It would be wonderful to see the scientific method taught in womens studies departments.

    Related: is feminism a falsifiable science? Has there ever been a study that concluded: the null hypothesis is right, the patriarchy was not to blame. (In fact, what IS the null hypothesis in women’s studies?)

    Related related: If you say feminism is not a science, then on what basis should it be making policy recommendations and recommendations about new laws, punishments, regulations. What is it observing and how is it observing that.

    So please Sheril, I encourage you, write your own book on women scientists and the scientific method.

  8. ARJ

    This whole debate is silly; there are plenty of places where gender consideration might be particularly worthwhile, but making selections for a science anthology is hardly one of them. This is a book about SCIENCE not gender, and it is a great collection as is ( http://tinyurl.com/y9n6f57 ).
    Should college professors also choose science textbooks for their courses based on which ones are authored by females?

  9. Ed Yong

    Extra irony points to Anonymous Coward, whose line “Write your own damn book” appears practially level with the “Our Books” header of the right hand column.

  10. Anthony McCarthy

    Like I said, avoid any book that starts out “The Oxford Book of….”.

  11. Buzzinga

    The book is fine, nothing exceptional, some pretty good essays by Gould, Haldane, Medawar and Oppenheimer. It is one man’s personal selection, that’s about it. Some people may like it, others won’t. I really don’t understand what the uproar is about. Spend your time more productively.

  12. It’s a shame that Dawkins wasn’t willing to sack the fuck up and admit he blew it.

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    — I really don’t understand what the uproar is about. Buzzinga

    I assume you’re a man? I am and I can understand why someone might bring it up. I don’t think what SK said constitutes an “uproar”. It was a fairly simple point.

    —— Spend your time more productively.

    I generally figure that peoples’ time is theirs to spend how they want to or, as in this case, on something they find productive. I think agitation for justice is about as productive an activity as there is.

  14. Ed Yong

    The fact that some people are still saying that they don’t understand what the point is is entirely the sodding point.

  15. It’s amazing what a bunch of unreflective whiny-ass titty-babies you “rational thinker” and “skeptic” d00ds become when you are asked to be a little bit skeptical about your own motherfucking privilege. Grow up already, little boys.

  16. Partiarchy FAIL, d00ds. Totes FAIL.

  17. I am so glad I had other things to do today that I missed most of the kerfluffle here and at Miranda’s. Thanks for your continued attention on this, Sheril.

  18. bob

    What, exactly, are you saying, Sheril?

    You point out that you didn’t technically say Dawkins was sexist, and then allowed him to explain how/why he wasn’t being sexist, but then you give us the mealy-mouthed non-statement “the lack of female contributors matters because it perpetuates underrepresentation.” What, exactly, do you mean? What, exactly, would have preferred happen in this situation?

    You then agree that “inclusion for inclusion’s sake” would be bad, but prefaced (and undermined) that by saying that science is a boys’ club and coyly making Dawkins seem elitist (“the view from Oxford is that the twentieth century is modern”). “Modern” in this context is a standard term in science, particularly physics, Sheril. Modern means non-classical, as in after Einstein (that is, relativity and quantum mechanics). Nice ‘framing’ job there, though.

    What, exactly, are you trying to say here? Are you honestly just “glad it’s being discussed around the internet and hope the conversation continues”? If so, then YOU need to consider the impact of YOUR words and statements. Look at some of the comments your posts on this topic have garnered, such as the profound: “This just proves what people already suspected, Dawkins is a mysoginistic old fart.”

    You’re being quite the hypocrite with regards to this, by the way, since it’s what you seem to be criticizing Dawkins for not doing.

    Are you familiar with the term “will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest”? You might want to look it up. You put up posts entitled “But Dawkins, Are 96.4% Of Modern Science Writers Men” and “On Imbalance and Underrepresentation,” and people flock here and crow “Dawkings iz seXXXist!!!” That’s on you, especially since you purport to be an expert on this whole communication thing.

    Finally, I’m surprised that Comrade PhysioProf’s comments passed moderation. Do the rules change depending upon how much you agree with the authors? Interesting. As for you, Comrade, you seem like a really cool guy. Very edgy and hip, those f-bombs of yours.

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Extra irony points to Ed Yong — I don’t see any books there written about the best articles by women scientists by Sheril Kirshenbaum. That was clearly my point. If she wants a book about the best articles by women scientists, why is she waiting/demanding Dawkins produce it like some sort of White Knight come to save her?

    Perhaps Ed, your sodding problem is that you bloody well like to bloviate, but ain’t much into blooming reading what others have to write. Governor.

  20. “Extra irony points to Ed Yong — I don’t see any books there written about the best articles by women scientists by Sheril Kirshenbaum. That was clearly my point. If she wants a book about the best articles by women scientists, why is she waiting/demanding Dawkins produce it like some sort of White Knight come to save her?”

    Your point is abundantly clear. The only problem with it is that it is 100% hypocritical bullshit. No one is waiting for or demanding that Dawkins do anything. They are simply criticizing him on the merits for what he did. They are saying that his choice of articles was intellectually lazy and biased.

    Isn’t criticizing others for their intellectual errors what you “rational skeptic” d00ds spend all day doing? You “rational skeptics” are all about criticizing the cherry-picking, confirmation biases, and other rhetorical antics of your “adversaries”.

    But when it comes to criticism of the intellectual celebrities you consider to be “on your side”, you turn into a bunch of credulous children swooning over the latest teen idol on the cover of Tiger Beat. Quit acting like hero-worshipping children, and apply the same “rational skeptic” standards to yourselves and your heroes as you do to everyone else. It’s fucking embarrassing already.

  21. bilbo

    I always love how bob’s comments on this blog are rambling, self-righteous arguments about Chris and/or Sheril that paint their tone as condescending….all written in a rather condescending tone by bob.

    Extra irony points for you too, bob. You’re the tone police! Thanks for keeping us sooooooooo in line.

  22. bilbo

    Some people may like it, others won’t. I really don’t understand what the uproar is about.

    Sure you understand, buzzinga: Sheril is one of the people who doesn’t like it. Last time I checked, she’s got a right to express that opinion….especially on her vey own blog. People shouldn’t write (or edit) books if it blows them away that people will criticize their choices. Sheesh.

  23. Billingham

    I remain amazed at the resistance that even a mention of institutionalized sexism generates. Especially on a blog that has this as one of tis key goals! Inclusion for its own sake isn’t the point of this: it’s that Dawkins seems to be practicing exclusion for its own sake.

  24. Sigmund

    Lets face it, going by the author list it seems that Dawkins’ sexism is clearly secondary to his disgusting overt racism (how many articles were authored by African Americans or East Asians?) and his shameless pro-Jewish scientist promotion!

  25. Buzzinga

    Who is being blown away here?

  26. bob

    And, bilbo, I love it when you address me rather than my points. Sign of a good argument and a sound mind, that. As for your (minor) point, I’m not sure that I’ve complained here (or anywhere) about Sheril’s or Chris’ “tone.” Here, I’m complaining about Sheril not coming out and saying anything of substance, but rather coyly implying that Dawkins is sexist and allowing all kinds of mouth-breathers to come here and say it directly for her.

    And, Comrade PhysioProf, do you remember how upset we “hero-worshipping children” were with our “intellectual celebrities” when Bill Maher was given an award for (supposedly) promoting science? (That situation even revolved around Dawkins, champ.) Apparently not, probably because it doesn’t jibe with the caricature of us ““rational skeptic” d00ds” you’ve built in your head, so you conveniently ignored it. Slick.

    I’d sink to your level and call you some name you deserve to be called, but my experience here is that swearing or overly criticizing an Intersection sycophant gets your comment moderated out of existence, unless of course you are yourself an Intersection sycophant.

  27. Harman Smith

    By the way, I read the book (finished it a few months ago) and two writers stood out for me… Stephen Jay Gould and Rachel Carson. So for me at least, there was no gender gap; it was 50/50. I win!

  28. Davo

    I wonder if Ms. Kirshenbaum is also going to criticise Mr. Dawkins for including so many Jewish scientists. 25% of all Nobel Prize winners in science are Jewish and so are many other prominent non-Nobel laureates, but maybe Ms. Kirshenbaum thinks it’s still unfair to include so many Jewish scientists?

  29. Anonymous Coward

    “But when it comes to criticism of the intellectual celebrities you consider to be “on your side”, you turn into a bunch of credulous children swooning over the latest teen idol on the cover of Tiger Beat. Quit acting like hero-worshipping children, and apply the same “rational skeptic” standards to yourselves and your heroes as you do to everyone else. It’s fucking embarrassing already.”

    You of course have no idea how I feel about Dawkins, not knowing if I find him an annoying git or my personal teen idol.

    But what has feminism said for 40 years if not, Sheril, do it your own damn self?

    Dawkins has picked his picks. And you critique him because his arbitrary picks don’t meet your arbitrary standards.

    By the way CPP, I’m not sure if you’re male or female, but regardless, you don’t really get a pass for telling Dawkins to sack up, you’re basically making a remark that he’s less than a man, and that comes down to a basic homophobia that you have internalized. If you think you’re some sort of enlightened feminist, it makes you that much more of a fool. And a bigot.

  30. Anonymous Coward

    I’m clearly not as smart as everyone else here, but

    “I am not disappointed because Dawkins failed to bend over backward to make sure that the scientists included in his anthology matched some sort of set of diversity statistics. I am disappointed because Richard Dawkins, a man who is as gifted and talented a communicator of science as anyone alive today, clearly failed to consider the message that his choice of authors might send to quite a few of his readers, and the good that might come from putting a bit of thought into finding even one or two more talented scientists to include in the anthology who were not white men.”

    Seems to be a distinction without a difference. “Disingenuous” comes to mind.

  31. gillt

    Just to be clear, Sheril and the rest are comparing the ratio of male to female scientists to the ratio of popular science essays written by male and female scientists in Dawkins’s anthology. Consider the male/female distribution of 2009’s “The Best American Science and Nature Writing” edited by Elizabeth Kolbert. It’s full of male authors. Perhaps the Intersection could try a little harder in disguising its disgust for anything Dawkins by taking Kolbert to task for gender bias as well. Or maybe look into whether or not there are more popular science articles being published by males–both scientists and journalists.

    As it stands, Sheril’s criticism only makes sense if you’ve made a career out of making insipid criticisms of whatever Dawkins publishes.

  32. Harman Smith

    I do think it’s telling—and I forgot to mention this earlier—that people didn’t notice this gender gap in the book until now. The book in question was first published in March 2008. We’re approaching 2010.

  33. I have learned not to go a-blog-reading when a headache is within sight. The inanity hurts.

    “There are women in science so I should include some essays by women because it’s the PC thing to do. If x% of scientists are female, then I should include x% of articles written by females.”

    is different from

    “The climate in modern science is changing to finally include a more diverse group of scientists, bringing some interesting perspectives to the table and raising the bar for us all. It’d be great if I could highlight the work of some of them in a book on modern science writing.”

    Quotas and inclusion for inclusion’s sake are VERY different from highlighting some interesting and important perspectives. He did seem to include a diversity of scientific disciplines (though some here are underrepresented a bit too, but not nearly as obviously). I think MODERN is bad adjective to attach to most of this writing. Either way, it’s a neat collection, but could have been better done, and I would hope someone with as much power/notoriety/fame as Dawkins could do a better job. Ahh well, can’t say I’m surprised.

  34. bob

    Rocketscientista,

    You say “it’s a neat collection, but could have been better done, and I would hope someone with as much power/notoriety/fame as Dawkins could do a better job. Ahh well, can’t say I’m surprised.”

    How do you think Dawkins could have done a “better job,” and in what way would it be better? Please be as specific as possible, since the current vagueness expressed by Sheril is getting us nowhere.

    Also, why are you not surprised? Do you think Dawkins is sexist? If so, do you think this because of Sheril’s sudden highlighting of this book (which was first published nearly two years ago)?

  35. hgg

    Rocketscientista; sorry if I made your head hurt, but that’s the great thing about blog reading – one can always stop when it hurts too much :-)

    Inclusion for the sake of inclusion is not what we want. What we’re arguing here is that exclusion because of “intellectual laziness” as CPP puts it, tradition, bias or plain sexism (which I don’t think is the case with the book being discussed here) is not necessarily a good thing either.

    We all have our ways of dealing with stuff we don’t like. Some of us puke on patriarchy’s shoes once in a while and it happened to be at Dawkin’s otherwise excellently compiled anthology on my blog week ago. Maybe unfair in the context of the book, maybe not. Some of us argue (more eloquently) we have work to do, some are good at arguing against strawmen (DM) and little by little we’re (hopefully) getting where we all can have mentors and role models who look like us.

  36. Anonymous Coward

    “and little by little we’re (hopefully) getting where we all can have mentors and role models who look like us.”

    To paraphrase Jesus General, that is General JC Christian (patriotboy.blogspot.com), boy scientists should have role models with little soldiers and girl scientists should have role models with little men in little boats.

  37. hgg- I’m with you there, really. Really, really.

    bob, He could have done a better job in a number of ways, and excuse my lack of eloquence as the coffee is just a brewing. He could sat back and reflected about “modern science” and actually taken a crack at assembling a few essays from a few people that didn’t look like him. He could have tried to be motivated by more than having his name even more associated with these guys. Having not read the book, only the contents, the pieces in my field aren’t the hardest to come across. I’m assuming it’s that way with the others. So woo hoo, he compiled some stuff by some famous people everybody knows about. Like I said, “neat”, but missing the mark on being anything anywhere near novel.

    He could have found some pieces by a few who haven’t necessary stolen the spotlight yet. Or a few up and comers. I know a few scientists more diverse than those in the book who have done both excellent science and have shared it in well thought out ways. He could have included not only a diversity of fields, but a diversity of people with a bit more range in author age/science age, maybe even preferring the more cutting edge things that are going on, say, today. There are female scientists now, as there are black scientists, and brown scientists, and I’m sure even a few pink (maybe that’s just my pink hair talking, though). And yes, some of these non-white males are in fact better at what they do than some white males. *GASP!*

    I get it, the guys who wrote the essays in the book are good. That’s NOTHING new to me. Einstein, Feynman, Krick? Who wouldn’t know about them? Sure a few of those author/scientists haven’t made my cut, but again, nothing surprising. And the other way this doesn’t surprise me is that THIS is the norm. Most collections like this about science/science writing, whatever- they’re all the same.

    I think Dawkins had a great platform and he could have used that position to really surprise some of us and open our eyes (isn’t that what he likes to do? one who seems to love controversy went pretty lame here). I’d love that. But this is like picking a few things off any old science library shelf. Sure, they’re amazing scientists with some great essays and people should read them, but I’m not going to buy it. Or read it. I’ve read enough of these people’s works already. So, to answer your other question, I’m not surprised it took Sheril two years to get here- it’s that much an unexciting book that I didn’t notice it either. But upon noticing it existed and it’s contents, I, too, would have said something.

    Coffee’s done so that means it’s get to lab time- if we didn’t make it now, doesn’t mean we won’t, so it’s back to work. My work here is DEFINITELY not done.

  38. Passerby
  39. Nuspirit

    From: Reality
    To: Gender Equality

    Subject: RE: Dawkins and Science Writing

    As due to our policy of not confirming to ideology, we regrettably cannot comply with your request of reinventing history to better represent women in science writing. Our policy unfortunately also applies to altering individual opinions, such as Mr Dawkins’ personal opinion of what makes a great contribution to science writing.

  40. From: Reality
    To: Hypocritical Douchebag

    Subject: RE: Dawkins and Science Anthologies

    As due to our policy of not confirming to ideology, we regrettably cannot comply with your request of reinventing history to better represent Dawkins’s editorial choices for his anthology. Our policy unfortunately also applies to altering individual opinions, such as Sheril Kirshenbaum’s personal opinion of what makes a great anthology of science writing.

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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