Has Gender Equality In Science Journalism Taken a Step Back in the 21st Century?

The opening plenary session at the UK Conference of Science Journalists 2014 was on the hot topic of sexism in science journalism and, while progress is clearly being made towards gender equality, the panel highlighted a number of factors that have negatively impacted women working in science journalism, particularly in recent years.

It would be easy to argue that the outlook for female science journalists has improved dramatically and there are verifiable facts to back this up. There are higher numbers of women working in science journalism than ever before, more and more publications are employing positive discrimination policies, and the pay gap is shrinking at last.

However, there have been three major shifts in journalistic culture in the last few decades that have specifically had a negative effect on the careers of female journalists, including those working in science and technology.

Joan Haran, freelance researcher, first brought up the fact that the economic downturn took its toll hardest on female journalists as senior women, already vastly outnumbered, were very much “first out the door” when cuts had to be made. This phenomenon didn’t just occur at the top of the ladder; the recession had a huge impact on women throughout science journalism, including freelancers.

Online journalism has also created a host of new problems for women working in science journalism as having higher profiles leaves them more open to abuse and threats. Many online publications employ non-moderated and unfiltered comment sections and at the panel, Michelle Stanistreet, general Secretary, National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who was reporting on the results of the NUJ’s survey of sexism in journalism, made the point that many journalists are heavily pressured to engage positively with these comments, despite the fact that a huge number contain aggressive misogyny and threats of violence that would never have been published in an editor’s letters page in the past.

This culture is discouraging women from entering or continuing to work in the science journalism field and can have devastating effects.

Another trend that was seen in the NUJ’s survey was exploitation of interns. There are a higher percentage of female interns than there are employed female journalists and the internship positions are generally unpaid and highly competitive. This leaves interns in vulnerable positions as they are in a far less secure position to speak out if abuse is occurring and are keen to impress and progress their careers. Michelle Stanistreet described how damaging these situations can become if they aren’t discussed and noting that, in some cases, “the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch is still alive and kicking in the 21st century”.

While it is vital to identify problems and speak out, it is also important to try to propose solutions and possible methods to improve the working environments of female science journalists. Priya Shetty, founder of SexismInScience, explained that science journalism needs an “internal recalibration” with concrete policies and procedures in place, rather than just good intentions of a respectful working environment.

It was mentioned several times by the panel that men working in science journalism are quick to defend themselves and their close colleagues and to make the point that “not all men” are abusers.

However, it is far more important to realise that while the perpetrators of sexism are in the minority, women who have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis are in the majority. Priya Shetty described the “culture of open secrets” that prevents people from speaking out and naming known harassers. It was in firm agreement that known harassers need to face harsher consequences for their actions, regardless of their status within the journalism community. This was concisely summed up by Priya Shetty: “If you don’t want to tarnish your career, don’t harass people”.

While gender equality is clearly still very much a “work in progress” within science journalism, the panel showed that there are people and organisations taking steps to address this and offered both practical solutions and personal reassurance.