The Self-Edited Woman

Shutterstock: In 2004, Susan Herring and colleagues showed that “contemporary discourses about weblogs, such as those propagated through the mainstream media, in scholarly communication, and in weblogs themselves, tend to disproportionately feature adult, male bloggers.” And yet, female blog authors represent, in numbers, as great or greater a voice in the blogosphere as male bloggers.

Many research studies have focused on exploring the reasons behind women’s relative lack of prominence in the blogosphere. A 2006 number-crunching analysis showed that men’s blogs receive more comments than women's. Herring, Kouper and colleagues have shown that male-authored blogs are traditionally the most popular and “linked-to” blogs on the web, and that men are more likely than women to blog about external world events and online happenings. That was in 2004, though, and across a range of blog types (not focusing on science blogs yet).

Other researchers have attributed some of the gender gap in blog prominence to blogging style (although I personally think this says very little about the impact of women’s blogs, especially when it comes to science blogging). In the 90’s, research by Susan Herring characterized men as having a more adversarial, strongly assertive, self-promoting and controversy-oriented online discussion style, women as having a more supportive, attenuated and question-oriented discussion style. Early research also characterized academic women as being “more guarded, engaging in more self-monitoring and communicating less information on the web”. Women are also more inclined to blog anonymously, or under a pseudonym.

In a 2007 survey of British bloggers, Sarah Pedersen and Caroline Macaffee found that women tended to describe themselves as more interested in the social aspects of blogging, while men expressed more interest in information and opinion.

But what many of these studies don’t explore are the implications of the different blogging styles between men and women, and what it means if women choose to write about different topics than men. Also, what we aren’t talking about is whether, if men are blogging about science more assertively and more centered around controversy, for example, what this means for the quality of science communication. Assertive and/or debate-centered science communication is not better science communication.

In many of my interviews with science bloggers this summer, I’ve heard writers say they will avoid controversial or heavily debate topics in science unless they have something new to add to the conversation. Sometimes that something new is new evidence, a different perspective from a different field of science, or a personal experience. Often – but I can’t comment yet on whether this occurs more often among female science bloggers than male – this is because the blogger is a young career scientist who doesn’t want “taking a stance,” especially when the weight of scientific evidence isn’t clearly on one side, to jeopardize his or her career prospects. Other times the blogger is a young career science journalist who doesn’t want to appear biased by taking a stand on a scientific issue. Several female science bloggers expressed being very self-aware that their blogs are un-edited and that they are their own “gatekeepers” of information. They often expressed thinking about the “editor on my shoulder” and about needing to collect enough evidence to support their position or their blog title. If they couldn’t, they were inclined to abandon the story until they could make a stronger case.

Un-prompted, several young female science bloggers I’ve interviewed mention having blogged anonymously in the past, being self-conscious about expressing their expertise on a topic, or avoiding certain topics because of the nasty comments they might receive. Again, this is not to say that male science bloggers don’t express these concerns. My research and others’ research will tell with time whether gender differences really do exist in these aspects of science blogging. But if women are generally less likely to cover highly debated science topics, or do so at the same frequency as men but are more careful of the evidence and balance of views they bring forward, what does this mean?

I think it could mean women are often more careful, conscientious science bloggers than men, and this would (or should) be a very positive influence in the impact of their science blogging on science journalism and public engagement with science.

I think it’s misguided to correlate assertiveness in writing or claim-making, or even number of comments received, with greater impact of male-author vs. female-authored science blogs. As discussed previously on this blog, assertive and dogmatic science writing often creates “backfiring” or “boomerang” effects on readers’ attitudes toward science and technology.

Science blogging is different than science journalism in often being accompanied by a personal voice and personal opinion. And, usually, science blogging is un-edited. Thus the quality of a science blog – including aspects of contextualization, accuracy and balance – is highly dependent on the practices and standards of the blogger him or her-self. IF women who maintain science blogs are more apt to carry around an editor on their shoulder, to be more self-aware of their un-edited voice, then these are precisely the bloggers who should be making an impact on science journalism. These are the bloggers who could make fantastic blog managers and editors.

I think more research should focus on empirically exploring potential gender differences in how science bloggers select and produce stories about science on their blogs. But also, perhaps more of this research should focus on the real impacts of these differences, without assuming that the impacts will be negative.

Do you have any thoughts or insights on gender differences in science blogging? Please comment below.