Missed Opportunities for Inclusion at ScienceWriters 2015

By Sonjiala Hotchkiss
Reporting on the #SciWri15 #SciWriWomen session.

I am more scientist than journalist; and, I do not expect that dynamic to change. I would like to be a better journalist though. When I first heard about the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), I thought that this organization could be a home away from home as it were. I was so excited to attend my first ScienceWriters conference thanks to a NASW DiverseScholar fellowship.

I did not expect to see many black women like me at the SciWri15 conference. I did not expect a high degree of inclusion, honestly; but, when confronted with a panel discussion titled “Sexism, Science Writing, and Solutions: Charting the Future”, I thought that this would be a space that demanded some attention to diversity. The level of failure on this front was disheartening.

When women are not inclusive

Panelist Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight, said that following the publication of an article she wrote for The New York Times on sexual harassment in the sciences [Aschwanden 2014], a male respondent emailed that the sorts of things that she wrote about did not happen when he was at the university in the 1970’s “because he would have known”. Queue the collective eye rolls. The white, female panelists were united in their castigation of male cluelessness, while being quite at ease with their own. Aschwanden continued by warning that people can become invisible because of the category that they are in, because their experience is dismissed as other and unfamiliar.

Were any of the non-minority women on the panel uncomfortable when fellow panelist Deborah Blum, who spoke on the importance of including women writers in the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology when she was guest editor, failed to express any concern or interest in including writers of color. That is not a question. The one woman of color on the panel, though not an underrepresented minority, Apoorva Mandavilli said that she did not want to “wade into the minefield” of asking Blum about the number of women of color who were included in her impassioned drive. Blum responded that she would like to know the answer to that, too, as though the responsibility for knowing that lay elsewhere. In my opinion, when Blum spoke of how inclusion of women was important to her, the unspoken “white” adjective preceding women was clear.

For SciWri15…one woman of color on a panel…was enough

Though panelist Emily Willingham, a member of the NASW board, implied that supporting diversity meant that all members of the community would have to take on that responsibility regardless of their roles in the community, all the white members appeared content to abdicate that responsibility, save platitudes, while sitting on the panel. Numerous opportunities for these panelists to speak in ways that foster an inclusive environment during the panel were passed over. There was a woman of color to talk about the woman of color stuff. When Mandavilli indicated that it was of concern that she was the only woman of color on the panel, was she heard? Notably, Mandavilli is the co-chair of the NASW Diversity Committee; and, she authored an essay about her sense of isolation at the 2013 ScienceWriters conference [Mandavilli 2013].

Audience member, Jennifer Cox, public information officer for Kansas State University asked why people dismissed efforts to make sure women were reasonably presented as “political correctness”. Cox continued by referencing a statement by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that there will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there were nine. For SciWri15, it seems that one woman of color on a panel discussing female issues was enough. As the panel discussion drew to a close, panel moderator Cristine Russell assured the audience that the panel was going to fix its diversity problem. Yes, I thought, next time they would be sure to include men.

There is no one solution to sexism

While the panelists seemed to be able to spit out the numbers that show the lack of inclusion, they were not able to translate this into actionable awareness of their comfortableness moving within homogenous environments — the extent to which they were creating safe places for only themselves. Anyone who speaks, thinks, or comes from a different experience can mold themselves to fit this environment as best they can. Seeing non-white faces in a space is not the definition of diversity that leads to change.

There was no acknowledgement that there may need to be multiple strategies to combat sexism — that strategies that work for one group of women may not work for another. The whole tone of the event was that there was one voice — one unified strategy would work. This is not the case. As a woman of color who frequently moves within work and social environments that are mostly white, I see that men behave differently when faced with someone who looks like them, who could be friends with their daughters and wives, and whose male family members could be members of their clubs and organizations. Not that these considerations are a bar to harassment; but, they do provide a layer of protection absent to women like me and seemingly invisible to those who have the benefit. When speaking of solutions to sexism in science writing, any woman on that panel could have fostered inclusiveness by simply acknowledging that multiple strategies would be necessary since not all women are similarly at risk for all types of harassment.

Panelists of the SciWri15 Sexism, Science Writing, and Solutions session (left to right) Laura Helmuth, Apoorva Mandavilli, Christie Aschwanden, Emily Willingham, and Deborah Blum (not pictured: moderator Cristine Russell).

References or Relevant Literature

C. Aschwanden (2014) Harassment in Science, Replicated, The New York Times, August 11

A. Mandavilli (2013) Alone in a Room Full of Science Writers, Medium, November 8

Photo credits: S. Hotchkiss

The citation for this article is:
S. Hotchkiss (2015) Missed Opportunities for Inclusion at ScienceWriters 2015. DiverseScholar 6:6

Sonjiala Hotchkiss is a master’s student in the chemistry and biochemistry department at the University of California, San Diego. She earned a BA in history from the University of New Orleans and a post-graduate diploma in law from the University of Law in London. Ms. Hotchkiss has won awards for her journalism from the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the San Diego Press Club. She created an online science magazine at STEMPunk.com where she publishes profiles of students and scientists, study tips, and science-related articles with the goal of encouraging members of underrepresented groups to pursue study and careers in STEM fields. Hotchkiss attended the ScienceWriters 2015 conference on a DiverseScholar NASW Diversity Travel Fellowship. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


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Published 23-Dec-2015