News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Translating Rhetoric into Reality: How to Promote More Women Leaders in Science and Journalism

    Author:
  • Jacqueline Tempera
| April 13, 2015

Despite decades of equal rights protests and well-intended legislation, our newsrooms, science labs and boardrooms remain surprisingly homogenous. By embracing a "good old boys" culture that leaves little room for diversity, many of these institutions are still edging qualified women out of their rightful leadership roles.

During a candid conversation at the Harvard Kennedy School, prominent women leaders in the science and media industries recently talked about their efforts to remedy this. They ignited a fervent discussion and identified achievable goals that both professional women and their male and female bosses can work toward. The event, "Sexism, Science, and Science Writing: Promoting Women Leaders in the Lab and the Newsroom," drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 women and men of all ages—from a female high school student to senior astrophysicists and science writers.

Moderator Cristine Russell, a longtime science journalist, said she is surprised that while equal rights have been fought for long and hard, not enough has changed.

"There are still cultural barriers, there are still gender gaps in pay, and there is still sexual harassment," Russell, a senior fellow at HKS' Belfer Center Environment and Natural Resources Program, said in her opening remarks.

The three panelists—Yale University professor of physics and astronomy Meg Urry; Nieman Foundation for Journalism curator Ann Marie Lipinski; and Popular Science executive editor Jennifer Bogo—agreed.

Watch the full event:


"I started grad school almost 40 years ago, and I thought we were in the modern era, and it was just a matter of time," Urry said. "When people say that to me now, I say ‘its been an awfully long time for so little change.'"

Lipinski, the first female Nieman Curator and the Chicago Tribune's first female editor-in-chief, pointed out that in 2004 women headed up seven of the 25 largest U.S. daily newspapers. But, a decade later, that number had dropped to three.

"In no cases where a woman had served as the top editor did another women succeed her," she said. "The first woman editor at all of those newspapers remains the last woman editor. ‘It's as if journalism saw it as a science experiment,' one friend of mine said. ‘Well, we tried that.'"

Lipinski added; "This isn't a pipeline problem. More than half of communications school graduates are now women. Yet they represent just 35 percent of newspaper supervisors. In television, they are 31 percent of TV news directors and 20 percent of general managers."

Similar problems persist in specialty science writing. Bogo cited recent data showing that "over several years, both the editors and authors featured in anthologies of best American science writing were predominantly male. Best-selling science books and award-winning science stories were predominantly written by men. In many science magazines, more men are awarded the title of contributing editor. Men, in other words, received more attention for their work."

High school girls are now taking about the same number of math and science classes as boys. Yet overall, far less than 50 percent go on to become scientists, with the biggest declines in faculty hiring, said Urry, who is president of the American Astronomical Society. While white women have seen some progress, there has been little progress for women of color, she added.

"We are missing very clever people that could add a great deal," said Urry. "It's about excellence and a diversity of ideas. We need a clash of ideas to generate new knowledge."

Despite the grim statistics, the women panelists were optimistic about moving forward. By continuing to work hard, to highlight their worth as employees, and to join forces with like-minded women and men, talented women can and will earn their spots at the table. It's also important to rebut sexist comments personally or to go to supervisors if a persistent problem emerges, they said.

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Sexism, Science and Science Writing

Changing the way employers tend to overlook females as serious candidates for jobs isn't difficult, Lipinski said.

"It's not rocket science," she said. "Or something really hard, like working full-time while nursing a colicky baby."

It's overt, or sometimes unconscious, bias, and not a balance of work and family, that is the real problem, Lipinski said. But though there is still considerable work to be done at the top of the corporate ladder, any employee can help change the climate, she said.

"We can't just wait for the end, when we have an opening for an editor, and say ‘we need to find a woman,'" Lipinski said. "We need to find women mentors and be promoters of women."

This can start with hiring managers, she said.

"If you require hiring managers to present a diverse pool" of candidates, she said, "don't you think the chances of creating a diverse workforce will increase?"

Urry highlighted how changing our mindset as a society can help. Educating men and women about their biases can help enact change and eliminate the stereotype that women don't make effective leaders.

"It's not just the men who are not objective about women, it's all of us," she said. "All of us who grew up in a society whose leaders are men."

Bogo, who has worked as a science writer and editor since graduating college in 1997, emphasized the importance of teaching young women how to be professional in the workforce. It's time to turn awareness into action, she said.

"We know enough now to hack the system," said Bogo, who is vice-president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. "We can teach young women to stand up for themselves.... we can train them to negotiate their salaries. We can give them the tools to be effective leaders."

Solutions to these problems require a change of culture that can only happen from within companies, she added.

The room opened up for questions after the hour-long panel presentation came to a close.

When one audience member asked the women how they recommend dealing with sexist bosses, Urry said: "Become the boss."

She believes that at their core women are self-assured, and by "owning their ambition" and working hard at something they love, they can become even more powerful. She recommends practicing what she calls "confidence brushing" to help women bring out their inner leaders.

"Women are at bottom, confident," she said. "When they're alone at night brushing their teeth they might be willing to admit that they are very smart and very good at what they do. But out in public we have a lot of doubt because we get so much feedback that we don't belong."

She continued, "Decide what you want to do and go for it."


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This seminar was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center's Environment & Natural Resources Program (ENRP); Knight Science Journalism at MIT; Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics & Public Policy; Women & Public Policy Program; and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.

Event organizers included ENRP's Cristine Russell and assistant director Amanda Sardonis; Wade Roush, acting director of the MIT program; and, at the Shorenstein Center, executive director Nancy Palmer and events manager Tim Bailey.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tempera, Jacqueline. “Translating Rhetoric into Reality: How to Promote More Women Leaders in Science and Journalism.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 13, 2015.

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