This one simple trick to help fight the male scientist stereotype


This week, I did my one of my first ever phone-interviews with a reporter for a story about black widows in grapes. I was really nervous about being quoted (what if I say something that sounds stupid, or worse, is wrong?) but I agreed to do the interview anyway. Despite my fears, I made this decision for a couple of reasons. I am passionate about spiders and science communication and I think it’s really important to do what I can to correct misconceptions that are often presented in the media. I absolutely want to take every opportunity to provide accurate information about spiders (especially the ones I study) to the public. Furthermore, I think that I have an obligation to do this because taxpayers pay for my research and training, at least in part.

It wasn’t until I thought a bit about it after I gave the interview that I realized there is another really good reason for me to say yes to interview requests from the media. News stories about spiders come up pretty frequently. If a spider expert is quoted in these stories, I often see familiar names: Rick Vetter, Chris Buddle, Robb Bennett (arachnologists who are all doing a fantastic job educating people about spiders). I just did a quick google search for the word arachnologist under “News” and found several more names on the first page or so of hits. With two exceptions (both of which were stories about recent spider research with quotes from study authors) all of the spider experts quoted have one thing in common: they are white men.

Is it possible that this is simply a representative sample of available experts? Maybe… but let’s check. If you google “list of arachnologists” the first hit is a wiki page with a list of arachnologists who are original describers of spider species… not super useful for finding a living expert. The second relevant hit brings you to a page on Arachnological Society of America’s website, listing arachnologists willing to train graduate students. That seems like a more reasonable sample. There are 11 women and 37 men on the list. So assuming this is a representative sample of the population of senior arachnologists, about 23% of available experts are women. I’d be willing to bet that among more junior scientists who study spiders (like me), there are even more women – probably much closer to 50%. Take for example the members of the lab I’ll be joining this fall: 8 of 10 are women.

I’m personally interested in these numbers because I’ve had variations of the following conversation several times, and it’s getting pretty old. It goes something like this:

Man: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a scientist! I study sexual communication in spiders.”

Man: “That’s an unusual career choice for a woman.”

In the past, I haven’t known how to respond to this because I didn’t have actual data on which to base a statement like “actually, XX% of arachnologists are women”. The data (at least for professors) turn out not to look that great, but I think it’s fair to say that female arachnologists are not particularly unusual. Anyway, the men in these conversations often go on to talk about how women in general or some women they know are afraid of spiders. I get that one of the reasons they think it’s strange for me to be a scientist who studies spiders is that women are more likely to be arachnophobic than men (it’s still an untrue stereotype that most or all women are afraid of spiders, but whatever). But it’s a fact that most people think of scientists in general as men. I recently read a piece about the male scientist stereotype and some thoughts on how to kill it on The Conversation. You should read it.

Women are just not seen as often as men talking about science in the media. Think about science TV shows – how many can you name that are hosted by women? A while back I attended a great talk by Dr. Jennifer Gardy for Ada Lovelace Day, and this was one of the things she talked about. Her main message was that things are (very slowly) getting better for women in science, but she made a bunch of suggestions about how to help continue to improve. One was related to increasing the diversity of scientists represented in popular media. Dr. Gardy regularly agrees to do media interviews, and she also occasionally hosts the CBC TV show The Nature of Things. Her advice to the women in the audience was to always say yes (when possible) to interviews. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s one important way to work toward improving diversity in science. If, for example, a girl sees a scientist who looks like her on TV, that could be the first time she realizes that becoming a scientist is something she could do. It just might help encourage her to aspire to become a scientist one day, and that would be awesome.

So great, if you’re a woman and/or a person of colour, saying yes to interviews is a good thing to do. What if you’re not? No problem! I’m definitely not saying that white dudes should avoid giving interviews. But what if you get asked to give an interview and you can’t? Do you suggest a colleague or student the journalist could ask? You almost certainly know some women who would be great choices. Suggest one of them! Even if you can do the interview but you know the journalist will probably be interviewing other experts too, why not suggest a woman they could talk to as well? Simple!

So that interview I gave about spiders this week? It was one of two that I gave, for different stories. Originally, Professor Chris Buddle was asked to give interviews by two journalists (he’s their go-to arachnologist, because he’s done interviews with them before and is always happy to talk about spiders), and he had to turn them down. He gave them both my name, and they contacted me. That easy! It’s not the first time he’s given my name to a reporter, but it’s the first time I said yes. I was busy visiting family last time, but I probably could have made it work – mostly I was afraid, but now I know it’s not so scary! I will be saying yes to interview requests whenever I can in the future. It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s important.

8 thoughts on “This one simple trick to help fight the male scientist stereotype

  1. It’s wonderful that he passed on your name to the journalists when he wasn’t available. That’s worth adding to your list as a suggestion for white dudes who are asked for interviews: by all means, take the interview, but if you aren’t available, why not suggest your female/non-white colleague as a backup?

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