Sexism in Science Journalism: Session Review

The UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 initiated with an issue of both current and continual importance - sexism in science journalism - the act of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, typically against women.

With two high profile cases sending shockwaves through the profession, both in the United Kingdom and across the pond, it was evident that this plenary session would resonate with many, long after the conference had passed. The session was chaired by Sue Nelson, Boffin media, a worthy chaperone given her recent comments in the Daily Telegraph on how ‘TV science was filled with too many Top Gear science style programmes fronted by male comedians that alienated both women viewers and guests’.

Yvonne Brill’s New York Times obituary set the scene beautifully for the first speaker - Michelle Stanisteen, general secretary, NUJ. Stanisteen exemplified how she felt ‘sexism was still alive and kicking in the broader industry’ by pointing out how women on maternity leave or those working flexibly, had been blatantly targeted during the economic downturn. An NUJ 2012 survey relayed concern over an ‘old boy’s club’ approach to recruitment and ‘opaque’ salary structures. Internships were noted as a ‘whole new area of exploitation’ and prejudice over presenting roles lead to women ‘on the wrong side of 50’ finding it much harder to work than their ‘equally wrinkled male counterparts’. The speech moved onto the online experience, and Stanisteen raised an important question - who should be responsible for moderating threatening and misogynistic article comments?

Victims fear reporting incidents over the possibility that ‘work might dry up’, and this was particularly the case for freelance or casual workers and it is leading to a system where the perpetrator is left ‘to carry on that kind of behaviour elsewhere’. Whilst new investigations are underway and more police involvement is taking place, Stanisteen makes the point that ‘this problem is one that affects all of us and should not be individualised’.

Next to take the podium was Dr Joan Haran where she narrowed down the issue to science journalism and presented the findings of a recent ABSW-led survey. ‘Prolonged and repeated contact with sources and without witnesses’, leading to employees having to deal with incidents in informal settings exemplified the need for more ‘clear procedures’, as well as a form of reporting which did not rely solely on the victim's input. Haran noted how the implemental nature of harassment made it difficult to ‘nip it in the bud’ as the harasser tended to get the benefit of the doubt and this too would need to change so the behaviour is not ‘normalised’. Here is a subset of her findings:

  • Two female respondents reported very serious cases of sexual harassment
  • Four female respondents reported cases of nuissance rather than intimidatory behaviour (with most citing incidents taking place at 'out of the office' locations)
  • Two female respondents reported neither experiencing or witnessing harassment suggesting that issue was not necessarily endemic in the industry
  • One male respondent reported never being aware of sexism in his organisation
  • One female respondent reported being grabbed by a male colleague whilst a sniggering (female) colleague looked on
  • One female respondent reported that a male source working elsewhere in the media made repeated sexual overtures towards her despite polite rejection. The repeated incidents reportedly resulted in the male making attempts to discredit her professional reputation with unfounded allegations against her.
  • One female respondent reported a detailed account of workplace harassment but asked that it not be discussed at the conference for fear that her harrasser was in the audience
  • One female respondent reported being told that she had 'a nice pair of tits' and of incidents where male scientists asking young women to join them at their hotel room
  • Two female respondents reported of feelings of discrimination when applying for science journalism posts
  • One female respondent reported a conversation with a former editor of a technology broadcaster who claimed to operate informal positive discrimination in favour of women journalists to make the section more attractive to female readers.
  • One male respondent reported that a chief subeditor on a weekly science magazine appointed more women than men due to their outstanding applications.

The final speaker Priya Shetty, science journalist, editor and Huffington Post blogger with near 15 years of experience working on issues of female equality summed up on the nature of casually dismissing incidents as ‘casual sexism or anecdotes'.

A sobering and in a way sombre opening to an incredibly insightful day of discussion that followed.