Science Journalism: Living up to the egalitarian ideal?

"Science is an egalitarian endeavour", exclaimed Priya Shetty, global health and human rights journalist, during the opening talk of UKCSJ 2014. Science may indeed have egalitarian ideals, but in practice both science and science journalism are rife with sexism.

Michelle Steinstreet, General Secretary of the NUJ, began the conference by explaining the prevalence of sexism throughout all journalism. Michelle noted, "the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch is still alive and kicking in the 21st century." But this isn't just a case of greasy old men preying on hopeful young interns. When it comes to ageing, female journalists are side lined more often than their "equally wrinkled male counterparts".

Joan Haran, of Cardiff University, has conducted research into sexism and harassment in science journalism. Joan reported the broad range of sexism, from intimidation to coercion and outright sexual harassment, which is prevalent in the industry. It was initially shocking to hear that one harassment testimonial couldn't be presented to the conference, as the victim believed the perpetrator may be in attendance. This announcement was met by an eerie silence, followed by turning heads and accusatory stares. I say 'initially' shocking as while the talk progressed it became overwhelmingly obvious that the various forms of harassment are so common in the industry that some of the perpetrators must have been present.

It was a deeply troubling talk, which had males throughout the room bowing their heads in an act of shame-by-gender-association. Although, there was a short break in these prostrations when Priya reminded us that not all men are predatory power abusers. "I'm not saying that all men act like this. It's a relatively small industry and many people know who the repeat offenders are, but they won't talk about it openly," Priya concluded.

Interestingly, Sue Nelson, chair of the panel, spoke out against the claim that sexism is all one way. She told the conference of a particular example of a male journalist having to leave the city after a particularly predatory female editor wouldn't stop harassing him. As partially reassuring as it was to hear that sexism doesn't solely stem from the Y chromosome, it is an unavoidable truth that nearly all cases are perpetrated by males.

It is still unclear whether sexism is more prevalent in science journalism than in other industries; or whether the sexism within this industry is a reflection of the simmering misogyny that still permeates society. Either way the issue will not get resolved unless it is talked about, and more importantly, talked about openly.

The overarching theme of all the talks in the session was that of the judgement, unfair reaction and negative ramifications which women are subjected to when they do report acts of harassment. Many are being side-lined, or even fired, just for telling their employers what happened to them. It is clear that the current pathways and channels that are used to report harassment in the workplace are not fit for purpose. Therefore, a new outside regulatory or legal framework is needed so that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace can have a safe and effective channel to report their experiences with impunity.