How to make the world worse when communicating your research

Laughing by Flickr user chimothy27

Laughing by Flickr user chimothy27

At a workshop on media relations for scientists, we read the first page of a paper from a totally foreign field and wrote a headline and first paragraph for a news story on the study. It was pretty challenging, but fun, to think of attention-getting but accurate ways to convey research. Then the presenter, someone who actually writes this sort of thing for a living, showed us how he’d translated the research into a few snappy sentences for a lay audience. One of his examples relied on gender stereotypes to generate humor and attention. The atmosphere was informal enough, and I was shocked enough, that I called him out on it. The presenter kind of shrugged it off, and one of the men in the class defended the headline. During a break, another woman in the workshop thanked me for saying something, which I really appreciated – I’d been second guessing myself about speaking up.

A later section of the workshop mentioned that at our university, the people who make the press releases show and discuss them with the paper authors. This put a a whole new spin on the situation for me. The media relations person made up the sexist headline, but the researchers approved it.

If you think a little joke about choosy females here and there isn’t a big deal, consider Moss-Racusin et al.’s paper in PNAS last year  that measured discrimination against women in science and then have a look at some of Ford’s work on humor. Those innocuous gender based jokes aren’t so innocuous – they help create and sustain bias in the scientific community.

I think as scientists we have an ethical obligation to try to keep our work from being used to further marginalize and oppress groups that already experience discrimination. We have to scrutinize our communication – with each other and the public – to be sure we aren’t part of the problem. Even if it’s just one headline that hardly seems sexist at all.