Featuring female scientists in science communication

Cultivating gender diversity in science communication isn’t an easy task. But because media underrepresentation of women in STEM can have negative consequences in both the classroom and the lab, it’s one that we as PIOs should try to tackle. So we turned to experts for advice on featuring more female scientists in our publications and articles. We talked to:

  • Michelle Nijhuis, freelance reporter
  • Kathryn Jepsen, editor-in-chief of Symmetry Magazine, a joint publication of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fermilab and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
  • Hanna Goss, PIO from DOE’s Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility
  • Karen McNulty Walsh, science writer/PIO from DOE’s Brookhaven National Lab
  • Cat Adams, UC Berkeley scientist, and
  • Stephanie Seay, science writer from DOE’s Oak Ridge National Lab.

This advice applies both to writing original content at your institutions as well as having scientists quoted in the media.

Chatting with them, some common themes emerged:

Be purposeful

Gender diversity doesn’t happen without concerted effort. Nijhuis, the freelance reporter, noted, “As I’ve gotten more experience, I’ve realized that genuine representation needs to be more of an active process. That means making an extra effort to look for sources who happen to be women.”

Jepsen has specifically started tracking the sources quoted in Symmetry. “It’s something that you have to keep paying attention to constantly. Our brains are just not wired to do that,” she said. “What they want to default to is the easiest source to think of and that’s usually a white man.” When she assigns stories, she generally suggests at least three sources. Of those sources, she aims for at least one to be female and at least one to be a person of color. “You have to take that extra time and build it into your processes,” she said.

In addition to who is quoted, McNulty said that her team also works to have female scientists in photos accompanying the story. “If it’s half-men, half-women quoted, but all of the pictures are male, you’re not going to get the right impression,” she said.

Expand your sources

As PIOs, we often go straight to principal investigators (PIs) for press releases quotes and feature article interviews. They’re also usually the points of contact for reporters. But PIs are disproportionately men. In addition, they’re not always the ones who have done the majority of a project’s work.

Talking to graduate students or post-grads in addition to PIs can offer a more diverse, interesting story. That’s true whether the writer is a journalist or PIO.

“The whole point for me as a journalist is to make a better story,” said Nijhuis. “I don’t just let the PI tell his version of the story. … You get a more visceral or vivid experience of what was in the field.”

Jepsen had a similar perspective. She emphasized that often you can get good behind-the-scenes details from a wider variety of sources. “I’ve been encouraging people to look beyond only the spokespeople,” she said.

If you feel like you keep going back to the same women over and over again, ask them to recommend colleagues to talk to instead.

“For the most part, people appreciate sharing that limelight a little bit,” said Adams, the Berkeley scientist.

PIOs can also look to ensure that their media lists of experts have gender parity. This is a major recommendation in the UK Resource Center for Women in Science Engineering and Technology report Promoting Women in the Media. Another strategy is to work with female researchers to include them in specialty lists such as 500 Women Scientists.

Get support from leadership

PIOs from the two DOE labs and the user facility all said their leadership has embraced gender diversity as a goal – not just in communications, but across the entire lab. As a result, there are a good number of female scientists in leadership and PIs in positions to interview and quote.

“We have some very, very interesting women. I think because of the supportive environment, [they] have really excelled at the lab,” said Seay of Oak Ridge National Lab.

If leadership supports scientists taking the time to do communications work, researchers may be more interested and willing to do it.

Similarly, graduate students may not feel that they have enough expertise or authority to speak about their projects. Encouragement from the PI can help. “As much as you can get the PI to tell [the grad students] that they’re the expert, that’s who [the grad students] are going to listen to,” said Adams.

State your goal explicitly

Some female scientists may feel like they’re the “token female,” especially if they’re one of the few women in their field. But explicitly telling them that you’re trying to achieve gender balance can help.

“If you can frame the issue as a formal policy … I think that will encourage them to talk to you,” said Adams.  “That will help them realize that this issue is larger than just them. Appeal to the social norms aspect of it.”

McNulty Walsh says that approach has worked at Brookhaven National Lab. “Sometimes we will deliberately say, ‘We want there to be a woman featured in this. We need role models for young scientists entering the field and for people who work here.’”


Be sensitive in what and how you write

Communicators often write differently about women than they do men. Being aware of that fact can help you avoid stereotypes.

Sometimes, it’s about what you choose not to say. Goss said that in a group profile of women working on a specific project, she chose to take out many of the self-effacing things they said. As these women are experts, she said, “I didn’t want it to come across that these women didn’t know what they were doing.” McNulty Walsh said that she once edited a story by an intern that referred to fellow interns as “girls.” McNulty Walsh told her, “You want these women to be respected as young women. You would never call the men boys.”

Questions about work/life balance and family can be especially tricky. Seay points out that her group doesn’t ask a female scientist anything that they wouldn’t ask a male scientist. “I tell them up front, I’m not going to include work/life balance details unless that’s something they want represented,” she said. This is sometimes called the Finkbinder Test, named after science writer Ann Finkbinder.

Taking the scientist’s preferences into account can be one way of tackling the issue. As Jepsen pointed out, “Some female scientists don’t want to be used to make some social point, they just want to be a scientist.”

Another way around this issue is to ask everyone these questions – not just women. “My response to what I do see as really sexist treatment … is not to stop asking women those questions, but to start asking men those questions,” said Nijhuis.

Tell us your experience

Has your institution undertaken efforts to promote greater representation of women in science? What are some ways your press office handles gender diversity issues? Join me on the EurekAlert! PIO Forum to discuss this more.