Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Women sciencebloggers, exposure, and my path to blogging

If you have been following this story, or follow me on Twitter, you probably saw something interesting happen last week when Wired announced their line-up of new sciencebloggers: of the five, only one is a woman. This led to a lot of Twitter activity (largely me, Ed Yong, Alex Wild, Christine Ottery, Jenny Rohn, Bora Zivkovic, Dave Munger, and Martin Robbins, but others in this conversation feel free to mention it and link yourself in the comments) and two important blog posts and comment threads -- a graph of women's representation in five major scienceblogging networks by Jenny Rohn and a list compiled of women sciencebloggers on Twitter using the hashtag #wsb by Martin Robbins (again, if there are more blogposts I'm missing, feel free to link in the comments).

Following this, Dave Munger began doing some of his own research on women in science, women in researchblogging, and women in scienceblog networks. His column on this issue appears today in Seed Magazine. It features a recent article by Anne Jefferson and colleagues about women geobloggers that I feel is relevant to my own blog story below, and Morgan Jackson has done an analysis of entymology bloggers that is also worth a read.

My story

This issue of women in the academic blogosphere, and specifically the science blogosphere, is close to my heart for a number of reasons. As Dave mentions in his column (I was interviewed for it), I have been hanging around the academic blogosphere for a long time, since early grad school, and have been reading and writing blogs since my junior year in college (that's about eleven years, if you're counting). At first, I read academic blogs by women. They were all pseudonymous, and there were regular flare-ups about who was a serious blogger or not based on whether they dared to use their real name. Many pseudonymous women wrote beautiful posts about what it means for them to reveal their thinking in a safe space, to make connections to other women when they feel isolated in their institutions, to give and receive true mentoring online when they weren't getting it in real life. Writing pseudonymously often seemed a way to be able to write about sexism without fear of being seen as a less serious scholar (because serious scholars can always rise above sexism since academia is a well-functioning meritocracy, right?), and without fear of personal attacks (though being outed was still occasionally a concern).

Anyway, after a while I realized that there was this thing called scienceblogging, where people didn't just write about their lives in academia or issues in the institution of higher education (two very important topics that I still read regularly), but also about the science they do.

And that's where all the men were. (There were some pseudonymous men, but also men blogging under their real name in a higher proportion, in the neighborhood of academic blogs I originally read.)

I found scienceblogs about denialism, about pseudoscience, medicine, anti-woo, evolution, atheism, science and religion, politics and science. I found researchblogging that cited specific sources. I found shouting matches. I also found lots of cool, sweet, nice, interesting people. And even though the tone was very different, and I often felt as though I had to shoulder my way in, I was hooked. A space where I could talk about science!

But I worried that authors of papers would hate me forever if I said anything bad online about their publications. I worried about employers firing me if they didn't like what I had to say. I worried about being attacked if I ever revealed experiences I have had over the years with sexism, or observed regarding racism. So I still didn't do it for a while. I had no idea if blogging under my real name would be safe or not.

Teaching and blogging

A few things happened that made me decide to do it even if there were consequences. Once I became a tenure-track professor, and specifically an instructor of Anth 143, a life science gen ed here at the University of Illinois, I noticed that my students sometimes came in with a smaller skill set on how to understand science than I expected. Many did not know how to read or interpret graphs or tables, at all. Many were unfamiliar with the scientific method. And many both hated science and were petrified of it. Mind you, these are very intelligent, fun, bright, attentive students looking to do well in class. It's not that they couldn't handle the material. It's not that they were not smart. Instead, they often described very specific experiences where someone had told them they weren't good at science, or described the pace of their classes as overwhelming, or even had very early experiences where they were encouraged to pursue fields other than science. Many of these students were women and people of color.

I redesigned my classes to teach more fundamentals on the scientific method and evolution. I did more testing and assessment on graph-reading. I incorporated active learning and more interaction-rich online learning into the course. But I also wanted to make science more accessible and fun, just to show students its potential. I find learning new things in my field and across science disciplines incredibly exciting, and I love reading good science writing. I love the tangents my mind wanders towards after linking something I'm doing in my research with teaching or a blog post I've read. And I wanted to see if I could do anything to foster that excitement in my students and a broader lay audience, at least in the topics where I have expertise and personal interest.

I tentatively started to blog at my lab website in May of 2009. I wrote about topics that I found interesting, specifically around women's reproductive functioning, and how anthropological interpretations of data and symptoms are very different than those of medical doctors. However, I worried that my own voice would overshadow the lab space, so in August of 2010 I created this blog, Context and Variation (you can read the about page for what it all means). Here, I have been trying to do some of my usual writing on women's health and reproductive functioning, as well as link round-ups that would be useful for new readers of scienceblogs, as well as for my Anth 143 students. I hope to get up the nerve to write about science more outside of my field of expertise in the coming months.

I have found it very difficult to figure out how to encourage more people to comment here, but also difficult to figure out how to promote my blog and increase my exposure. I would like to increase the number of blog posts I can submit to ResearchBlogs, but those kind of posts seriously eat into manuscript and grant writing time. Posts where I write about my life would be easier and faster to write, but then I risk being taken less seriously. In my interview with Dave Munger, we briefly touched on the ways in which men are more likely to be able to talk about their home lives at work without being targeted for attacks on whether they are serious about their work. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be evasive or not share information about their private lives. These are of course generalizations, and there are negative consequences for this sexism for men too (like men who are committed to co-parenting and raising their children being called just "babysitters" of their own children). And while personal posts always seem to generate more comments, science content posts seem to get the most respect as serious scholarship.

Thus women sciencebloggers, who, if my experience is generalizable, may first join the academic blogosphere for community and to contradict their isolation. They may find that if they use their real names they are suddenly censoring themselves in what they can write about (or at least, this is what I find about myself). I often wonder if the way we unintentionally create scienceblog hierarchies -- blogs about science above blogs about the life or process of science (and controversial topics or those where attacks of the author are common getting a lot more attention as well) -- is part of what keeps fewer women blogging, and those women who do blog from gaining much exposure.

Exposing more readers to women sciencebloggers: one solution

Christine, Jenny and I discussed on Twitter whether it made sense to create a women-only scienceblog network. I was hesitant to create a network that was women-only, because, as I tweeted, "I'd rather fight to play in th big kid sandbox rather than create my own, and help other women within it."

Still, I felt compelled to do something. And Christine several times made the point that we can't just complain, that we should come up with a solution. I am pretty sure it was Bora who first had the idea to aggregate women sciencebloggers, but I cannot find the tweet. So, knowing absolutely nothing about how to aggregate blogs, I went to the two posts over at to learn how. I cloned the FieldOfScience Yahoo Pipe first. Once the list got to be of a certain size (over seventy or so) the Pipe seemed to stop working and wouldn't save my work. So then I tried Xfruits. Turns out you can't aggregate more than thirty RSS feeds there either. So then I turned to Friendfeed, and thankfully Bora helped me figure out how to use it with a few comments in the Friendfeed stream and Twitter comments.

So currently there is a public Women Sciencebloggers Friendfeed group that you can subscribe to. Right now anyone can comment and add to the feed. Eventually I am going to make it a standard feed and see if I can convince a few other people (Jenny? Christine?) to help me be admins.

There are still some kinks with the Friendfeed. Some of the links that seemed to work in Yahoo Pipes are not working in Friendfeed. And again, now that the list is large, I am getting a lot of timeouts and errors. I am having trouble always important the feeds of group blogs correctly so that only the female bloggers are featured. So you may occasionally read a man in the feed (horrors!), or you may find your blog that was listed on Martin's #wsb list not yet in the feed. This is why having one of you volunteer to help me would be fantastic.

But not to fear. For now, I have come up with a relatively simple mechanism for you to tell me what blogs to add: you can email Make sure you provide the link, but also if it is a multi-authored blog the names of the women bloggers. I will not be able to update all that often, given the tenure-track job, teaching 700 students, raising a toddler and playing roller derby thing. But at least you have a place to remind me of women scienceblogs that need to be added to the friendfeed. And that means they will eventually make it in.

Once I'm comfortable that I have done the aggregating correctly, I'll submit this to in the hopes that they will feature it on their site. If you have other ideas to promote this feed and promote women sciencebloggers, however, I want to hear it in the comments!


  1. Kate - Thank you so much for telling your blogging story. It is similar to my own and the experiences and fears you describe for yourself are mine too. And big, extra-special thank you for putting together the women sciencebloggers feed. It sounds like a fantastic way to showcase the work of great women writers and scientists.

  2. Thanks so much Anne! I look to you for perspective on the scienceblogging community, so your words are a huge compliment to me :).

  3. Also: Blogger doesn't seem to want me to blog at work so I can't post from this computer. BUT Bora tweeted that the #wsb friendfeed is now on! It's just a matter of someone helping me clean it up and figure out how to get the rest of the feeds on it (I'm getting error messages when I try to add a 102nd blog, seem to be stuck at 101).

  4. Hi, Kate, great post! I straddle the academic-private research divide, and sometimes also face fear of repercussions for my views. Nice to know that I am not the only one stricken with the paranoid affliction.

    Will see if I am on either of the lists.

    Thanks for doing this!

  5. Hi Marya, there is no criteria for getting on the list aside from self-identifying as a woman scienceblogger. So if you don't think you were on the original list at Martin's blog (compiled from the Twitter hashtag #wsb) then email to be added!

  6. I've never faced any repercussions from blogging about the science of other people (that I know of, anyway). But, being a guy, perhaps I don't face the same biases.

    I have experienced the converse, where things I did in print had online consequences. I published a book review in a journal that was largely positive but not entirely glowing, and the author promptly unfriended me on Facebook.

  7. Alex, somehow the idea of one of your colleagues unfriending you on Facebook is hilarious to me! And sad. But still funny.

  8. I am just starting out as a science blogger - so this post was really interesting. My blog can be found here:

  9. I just added you to my Google reader! (Thanks to the link at Neuroanthropology.) I am also an Asst Prof. and I maintain a class blog for my women's health class but it mostly just links to other news stories that my students might otherwise miss, since not only do they not know basic science skills, but they also do not read!

  10. Rachel, send your link to because I use that as a kind of to-do list for the blogs I need to add. And welcome!

    Erica, also welcome! And I'm glad you found me through Neuroanthropology. I'm also thrilled to meet someone else who works in/teaches in women's health. Despite all the popular attention it gets, it seems like there are actually very few of us.

  11. Excellent initiative! Thanks for setting this up.

  12. No problem, SC! I'm so pleased with all the new blogs I've discovered (including yours) as a part of it.