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women scientists: don’t put them on air unless they’re the best

This post originally appeared here, on the blog for the College of Journalism at the BBC Academy, which discusses current technical, ethical, production and craft issues in journalism.

 

Soon after former BBC director general George Entwistle let it be known he wanted more female experts on the BBC, I arrived in the office to find a new colleague struggling to help the Today programme.

The request was linked to a Science Media Centre (SMC) press briefing we had set up to allow two leading experts, who happened to be men, to express their controversial view that the public sector may need to step in to drug discovery for diseases like Alzheimer’s as pharmaceutical companies retreat.

The story was splashed across The Independent and created quite a stir. But the producer wanted a female guest. Finding a leading female Alzheimer’s expert is not a problem – we have several on our database of 3000 scientists. But my poor colleague was trying to establish what the female experts think on this specific issue, then work out whether they were exercised enough and available to go on Today to argue the case – all this when two leading experts were willing and able, but of the ‘wrong’ sex.

It was certainly not the first time the SMC has had such a request from the media and in some ways the strange thing about Entwistle’s entreaties was that there has already been a dramatic increase in requests for women guests for some years from BBC news programmes. In fact, far from discriminating against female guests, it sometimes feels that the BBC seem to be doing the exact reverse – bending the stick towards women.

There are elements of this which are great news. The SMC is happy to promote female researchers – more women scientists and engineers on the airwaves will go some way to inspiring the next generation and emboldening those women scientists who are currently too media shy.

But there are also aspects that make me uncomfortable, most especially when desperate producers on incredibly tight deadlines appear to ask for any female expert rather than the best expert. My main fear is that if we are not careful, hard-pressed reporters and producers will end up bending the stick towards scientists who may have less expertise, but invite them onto programmes in order to reach arbitrary targets.

The lack of women at the top in science remains truly shocking. Over the last 10 years women account for only 10 per cent of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society, an award reserved for scientific excellence. This trend is reflected across science with women making up just 4.9% of Fellows at the Royal Society of Chemistry, 4.7% at the Institute of Physics and 3.8% at the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Journalists would do far better to expose and report these inequalities in science than disguise them.  It’s arguable that by disguising them we let the scientific establishment off the hook because things look and sound much better than they are.

One of the things I am most proud of at the SMC is how we have hugely increased the pool of scientific experts available to the news media. When we were set up 10 years ago producers often relied on a handful of well-known scientists who were happy to talk outside their specific areas. This happens far less frequently today because the SMC and other press offices have persuaded and trained many more eminent experts to emerge from their ivory towers and take to the airwaves.

As a result, journalists have easier access to the very best experts on breaking stories like swine flu, E. coli outbreaks, Fukushima, volcanic ash clouds and so on. Rejecting the best expert for a female expert, as we have been asked to do by journalists on several occasions, risks undermining the gains we have made in the quality of science coverage.

If all things are equal, and there are top experts of both sex available, then I am happy to discriminate in favour of putting a woman on air. Where I am uneasy is when all things are not equal and the best expert available is a man. Positively discriminating in favour of a woman with less expertise is patronising to women, bad news for the media coverage of science, and ultimately bad news for the quality of public debate on science.

In the end this comes down to one of those classic ‘ends justifying the means’ debates.  BBC managers are right to want to see more women scientists on our airwaves. I also absolutely salute those in the BBC who want to shake journalists out of their lethargy and get them to think much more imaginatively and intelligently about the range of studio guests. But I worry that the means employed, risk undermining the quality of science in the news while not achieving the meaningful change we all want to see.

So what’s the answer? For a start the scientific community has to get its own house in order. It depresses me that so many of the structural barriers to women reaching the top in science stubbornly remain, with women who take breaks to have families struggling to get back on the career ladder and shocking studies showing that we still harbour dinosaurs who promote poorly-qualified men over well-qualified women.

I welcome the debate about how we increase the number of women scientists on air and the SMC is currently looking at how we can do more to support and encourage women scientists to speak out in the media. But when asked by anyone on the SMC’s database ‘why me?’, I only ever want to say ‘because you are the best expert for this interview’.

 

For any women scientists who are interested in joining the SMC’s expert database, please do get in touch on 020 7611 8300 or smc@sciencemediacentre.org to find out how we can work together.

 

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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