As the “science writer” for The Atlantic, Ed Yong feels a special duty.
In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential uses of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.
Was his story about CRISPR accurate? Factual? Correct? Bah. The real question was whether he included enough women.
These disparities, both in the absolute numbers of men and women, and the ways in which their quotes were used, leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists. Indeed, two of the technique’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are women, and both of them spoke at the same conference from which I reported. And yet, if you read my piece, you could be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR was almost entirely the work of men.
It may well be that Ed Yong is coming to grips with his inner misogynist, that he’s ignored women in science who shouldn’t be ignored because he’s just a sexist guy. And he feels pretty badly about it now, realizing that his quotes, his “experts,” have failed to align with statistics.
Gender biases are also entrenched in the media, where, in the words of the sociologist Gaye Tuchman, women are being “symbolically annihilated.”
It may be unclear whether symbolically annihilated is anything like, well, annihilated, but it sure sounds terrible. And Ed, the science guy (who may be paid by the word, though I can’t prove that), wants to stop being part of the problem.
I’ve since been trying to actively redress the balance, by spending more time searching for women to interview. For any given story, I almost always try to contact several sources. If, for example, I’m writing about a new scientific paper, I will interview the scientists behind the work, but also pass the paper around to get comments from independent researchers. To find the right people, I’ll look at related work that’s cited by the paper in question. I’ll google for people who do similar research. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll look at past news stories. To find more female sources, I just spend a little more time on all of the above—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing, that Yong will just keep searching and searching until he can find a female source? If it’s a legit source, who may be overlooked because she’s been symbolically annihilated, then this seems like a legitimate means to bring deserving scientists into the mainstream. But then, if one has to search that hard, overlook other scientists who have established their bona fides in a field, their prominence, their expertise, to find someone of the correct gender, is that really science?
Yong dismisses this question as a straw man.
A related criticism is that it would be insulting for a woman to be interviewed simply because she is a woman. This is a straw man. I’m not asking people for their opinions because of their gender; I’m asking because of their expertise. Every single person I contact is qualified to speak about the particular story that I’m writing; it’s just that now, half of those qualified people happen to be women.
It may not be “simply” because of gender, but it’s primarily because of gender. As for “every single person” being “qualified,” this falls short of answering the question. Every lawyer is an “expert” in the law as far as non-lawyers are concerned, but we’re not exactly fungible.
And as with law, women have put together a list.
It is getting increasingly easy to find such people. The journalist Christina Selby, writing at the Open Notebook, compiled a list of tips for diversifying sources. The journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato created Diverse Sources, a searchable database of underrepresented experts in science. 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit, created Request a Woman Scientist, a similar (and larger) database. Both can be filtered by country, specialty, and more. Several scientists have compiled lists of women in microbiology, astronomy, physics, evolution, political science, neuroscience, and more. I keep a personal list of women and people of color who work in the beats that I usually cover. And if these all fail, the most basic journalistic method always works: Ask someone. Get people in the field to suggest names.
Are these experienced, knowledgeable, credible sources? Maybe. But they’re women, and when gender is your foremost concern, rather than accuracy, depth or actual expertise, any female will do the job. Yong rejects this concept.
[Should I] simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”?
It’s a fair question, but the answer isn’t nearly as elusive as Yong suggests. If he, as The Atlantic’s science reporter, can’t figure out who is the “most qualified” to opine on quantum physics, then perhaps he would do better writing for Salon, as he lacks the chops to be a credible science writer.
Yong has a blog of his own at Nat Geo called Not Exactly Rocket Science. And indeed, it’s not. Then again, it’s not quite social science either, even if it means there aren’t as many female voices as he feels there should be. Or even if it means there are more than there should be. Science is about facts, and facts don’t care about gender, no matter how much Ed Yong does.