No it’s not the history, it’s the missed opportunity…(Updated)

I haven’t stepped out into many blog controversies lately, but looking through all the stuff in my Google reader this morning I found this really excellent post from Tara at Aetiology, further commenting on this post by Dr. Hgg, and yet a third post from Sheril on her blog.

All this text is about a new book out ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing‘…ala Dawkins, and the current subject of all of these fine posts is that out of the 83 excerpts in the book- only 3 are written (actually 2 are written and 1 is co-written) by women. Hmmmm, surely there are a few more fine science writers out there who are women…. and why are they missing?!

Well, one can always say that the contents of this book are the top choices reflect the preferences of one individual, one very learned and powerful individual, one individual that would be excellent to have as an *active* advocate for women in science, Sir Richard Dawkins. Dr. Dawkins actually responded to a comment by Ed Yong on Sheril’s post:

“There is certainly no shortage of excellent female science writers to choose from. One of them writes this blog. Others are linked to in this very post. Olivia Judson, Deborah Mackenzie, Virginia Hughes, Natasha Loder, Linda Geddes, I could go on. Their skill is equal to and often superior to their male peers. . . . You’d be insane to argue that the 83 pieces in this tome are the best 83 articles written in 2008.” (Yong)

2008? Who said anything about 2008? This anthology goes back a hundred years, and not a single contribution is as recent as 2008. It is not an anthology of “science writing”, such as would indeed include Olivia Judson and the other admirable science writers whom you list. It is 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. (Dawkins)

Dr. Dawkins-…let’s not focus on the past. Let’s focus on that lost opportunity, however big or small, to actively and positively influence the future of the other 50% of the population to participate in academic science and participate at a high level.  That, in my humble opinion, is what everyone is so upset about. You see, I’m a young(ish) female scientist- and there is a high probability that your book will cross the threshold into my house, like so many of your other fine books. I’m going to read your book, and I’m going to see that great science writers don’t include people like me, hardly at all. Then I’m going to re-read your – hey, sorry,-it’s-not-my-fault-history-is-what-it-is comment up there- and I’m going to have the reaction I’m having right now…. which is- yes, duh- I know you can’t change history- but you CAN influence the future SO WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

See, I hope the power of this little controversy will be to highlight fact that the future for scientists who happen to be women, and science writers who happen to be women can be different but it *requires* the active advocacy of powerful people.  I’m sure you must have noticed the paucity of women on your list when you were putting your book together (at least I hope you did). If you truly are as you say:

I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists

Then I respectfully challenge you to put the ‘history is what it is’ bit aside and figure out what active role you might be able to play in the future to even out the gigantic gender disparity on display in your book.

p.s. I *truly* and deeply appreciate that much of your time is spent fighting creationism… for which, as a biologist, I’m very grateful… but I suggest that advocacy for scientists who are women (and steppin’ in to advocate with women like these achieve these goals)  is a similarly worthy cause.

**Update** p.p.s Both Drugmonkey and Greg Laden have written their own posts since this morning, and there is also discussion over at Miranda’s blog


13 thoughts on “No it’s not the history, it’s the missed opportunity…(Updated)

  1. Doubledoc’s in the ring!
    What happened in the past was that women weren’t allowed educations and men STOLE from women *cough Rosalind Franklin cough* and threw women under the bus to further their own careers. Women were seen, and are still seen, as helpers and assistants to the men rather than accomplished scientists themselves.

    The imaginary beings in the sky that hand down religious crap in the form of “intelligence” are the same imaginary beings that pat men on the back for their superior intelligence on all things science. It’s a continuum of patriarchy bullshit.

  2. I too have reservations about overplaying affirmative action, but, fuck, 2 1/2 pieces out 83? Surely not everything France Cordova wrote was too technical for a book like this?

    Although perhaps there is a pro-woman message in this. After all, it doesn’t say there aren’t strong women thinkers in science, it just says that they choose to spend their time doing science instead of reclining in a chair, pipe in hand, and writing pseudo-profound bollocks about it.

    I find these coffee table-clogging screeds to be thoroughly tiresome, anyway. They don’t cover any material in sufficient depth to be academically worth the effort reading, and they are too dull for bedside/On-the-john reading. It’s really just a Who’s Who of this -that-and-the-other, but you can buy that crap for less than $10 at a supermarket magazine stand (usually published by “Life” or “Time”). They should be banned, by rights, so that fathers across the planet didn’t have to annually feign gratefulness when they are gifted the cursed tomes by unimaginative relatives every Christmas.


  3. I have the book – and what it tells you is that guys think that scientists are guys and that guys doing science generally have staff (read wives) so that they can work 80 hours a week in the lab and still have free time to puff a pipe and read a book! I’m with DSKS on this: The Hidden Women of Science

    But I wonder, too, how many women (scientists or not) writing about science during that 100 year period. Even scientists won’t see what they are not looking for.

  4. DSKS- LOL. I need the comic relief after a bunch of blog arguing.

    Michelle- I read your posts- both the original ‘Hidden Women of Science’ and the follow up- Lovely.

  5. Our Blithering Professor Dawkins,
    who art writes opinion books,
    privileged be thy d00dname.
    Thy reviews come
    Thy citations be done,
    But not for women as it is with men.
    So give women this day pats on their backs too
    And forgive those feminists
    As they take down the patriarchy.
    Lead women not into obscurity
    but deliver them into recognition and Nobel Prizes.

  6. jc- you’ve outdone yourself this time. (Little A’s reading over my shoulder and she’s wondering WHY I left some letters out of that last word, OH DAMN).

    Seriously though- you’d think that if they noticed a real lack of great material written by women when they were putting the book together, they might have thought to say something about this in the intro- I’m wondering if they did, so now I’ll have to go read the book and find out.

  7. I’m not convinced that there’s a lack of such material at all, and my clicking around the old interweb seems to be supporting that belief.

    Further to the absence of women, it’s also bizarre that a book with a title that appeals to science in a broad sense, would go on to heavily bias its entries towards the evo-genetics folk. As if those bastards aren’t ranting, raving and generally stinking up the whole of cyberspace as it is. I tell you, those boys, collectively, are like the drunken uncle at an Irish wedding; slurring and finger-jabbing their way around the interweb, convinced that the rest of us have nothing better than to do but listen to them beat their chests and moan about all those proles questioning the fossil record.

    I wish they’d bugger off and find some creationists to harass, and leave the rest of us in peace, for Darwin’s sake.

    And anyway, everyone knows genes are to proteins what the snare drum is to jazz.

    You’d think they would all have gone home after the genome project farce, but there still going at it hammer and tongs, god bless ’em.

  8. Pingback: On Imbalance And Underrepresentation | The Intersection | Discover Magazine

  9. *in my best CPP indoor voice*

    If only teh Dawkins d00d would realize that women become *former scientists* for many of the same reasons that women become *former Catholics*

    do me a favor doubledoc, DON’T read his book.

  10. jc- Not usually, obviously. Last night she was looking over my shoulder for about 15 seconds- and she picked up a few things.

    About the Dawkins dude. I think he’s genuinely puzzled, like so many male colleagues who don’t have an inkling of what we go through sometimes. Go read FSPs post- that’s what I mean. Just don’t have an inkling.

    DSKS- You crack me up. This comment was better than the last. LOL.

  11. I read FSP. My chin’s on the floor. It shouldn’t be because I’m not surprised by any of it anymore. I put up with the same shit on a regular basis. When I point out the shit, I’m the hysterical whiny bitch. We can’t win.

  12. “I’m going to read your book, and I’m going to see that great science writers don’t include people like me, hardly at all. ”

    People like you? Are you not homo-sapien?

    How come you’re indignant over lack of representation of women, but not indignant over lack of representation of Muslim-Americans? Muslim-UKers(?). Or any protected class (race, creed, color, religion, age, veteran status).

    I’d say you’re a bigot.

  13. anon- By people like me. I meant moms with two kids before tenure. I was simply pointing out the lack of role models that did outstanding work in similar circumstances.

    As for your second comment. Actually I prefer that everyone has equal opportunities and is free from discrimination, but I have to start somewhere.

    As for your last comment. I’m completely happy to have a productive conversation on this blog- but you don’t know me, I don’t know you. How about we keep the name calling to a minimum until we know each other better?

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