Women scientists are from Venus; the BBC is from Mars

Women are majorly underrepresented on BBC science programming - except on the recent Venus transit documentary. 

Felicity Mellor
21 August 2012

BBC science presenters Liz Bonnin, Dr Helen Czerski, and Dr Lucie Green

On the night of the transit of Venus earlier this summer I was amazed by what I saw. Not because of the passage of the planet across the sun (I slept through that), but because I happened to catch a BBC documentary about this rare astronomical event. The film, broadcast as part of BBC2’s long-running Horizon strand, showed women scientists talking to other women scientists. For some time, I thought I was watching something as rare as the transit itself – a science documentary featuring women only.

In the end, some men did appear. In fact, three of the five interviewees were men, but unusually they didn’t appear until the last third of the programme. Also unusual for Horizon, the film used three different presenters – all of them women – and it was these women who took up most of the screen time.

I was surprised by the transit film because the prominence it gave to women was strikingly different from what I’d found in an analysis I’d carried out for the BBC Trust as part of its 2011 impartiality review of the corporation’s science coverage. (My colleague Alice Bell has summarised some of our other findings in a previous ourBeeb post, and the complete report is here.)

This analysis had found that only about a quarter of those interviewed in BBC news reports about science are women, and those women who are included are less likely to appear first in the item than the male interviewees. The same is true for non-news science programming with the exception of children’s programmes, where the number of women and men is roughly equal. That caveat about children’s programmes is worth noting. The more serious, grown up, authoritative or science-focused the programme, the less likely it is to include many women.

As others have noted, the underrepresentation of women on the BBC is not a problem unique to science. Kira Cochrane has found that across all of its output only 17% of reporters and interviewees on the Today programme are women; about the same as the 14% women interviewees we found for the science items on this programme. OurBeeb’s own research has found that over one day of broadcasting on Radio 4, a third of the presenters and guests were women; again, not all that different from the 22% we found for the station’s science coverage.

However, in the BBC’s science coverage, not only do women appear less often than men, but when they do appear, they are less likely to be scientists. Only about a quarter of the women interviewed across the whole of our sample were scientists compared to half of the men. That meant that overall only about a fifth of the scientists interviewed were women and only about 8% of all the interviewees were women scientists. By contrast, about half of the contributors with no identified professional expertise were women.

Authoritative experts are men, this seems to say; women, if they are heard at all, are simply representative of the general public.

It’s important to note that it’s not only the BBC that fails to seek out women scientists in its coverage. Indeed, the BBC makes more effort in this regard than some news outlets. In an analysis of newspaper reporting of science, Professor Jenny Kitzinger and her colleagues at Cardiff University found that only 16% of expert quotes came from women. Interestingly, the tabloid press includes a higher proportion of women scientists than the BBC, with 24% of expert quotes from women, but these newspapers cover science relatively infrequently.

In another part of this research project, the Cardiff team looked at 33 episodes of the Horizon strand broadcast in 2006. They found that six male scientists appeared for every one female scientist. (In our more recent sample of Horizon programmes, we found it was closer to four male scientists for every female scientist, perhaps indicating a greater effort on the part of the producers to recruit female contributors in response to the Cardiff research). On being told of the Cardiff findings, series editor Andrew Cohen told the researchers that he was not surprised. Although his producers tried to maintain a balance of men and women where they could, it was not always easy, he said. “We have to find the best people to tell the story, the people who have made the most interesting discoveries, the most interesting work.” 

Cohen has a point – up to a point. The BBC’s representation of women scientists roughly mirrors the proportion of women professors in science and engineering subjects: 20% compared to the 15% of professors who are women. For those subjects with fewer women – a mere 6% of physics professors are women – the proportion of women on the BBC also drops. For instance, on the Radio 4 science magazine show Material World, our analysis found that the proportion of women scientists in items about physical science and engineering was 7% compared to 16% in items about life science and medical science. Likewise, just two women (again 7%) appeared in the small number of news items about the physical sciences, whereas women accounted for about 40% of the interviewees in the much larger number of news items about medical science.

Of course, someone doesn’t have to be a professor to be interviewed on the BBC. The corporation’s reliance on senior academics for comment may exacerbate the gender imbalance of its interviewees. Below the professorial level, women in science and engineering departments are much more numerous, making up 43% of academic staff.

As the transit programme showed, there are media-friendly women scientists out there, even in the most male-dominated specialisms, and relying less on senior scientists would widen the pool of talent available.

However, as Kitzinger and her colleagues have also noted, a tendency to feature junior women scientists whilst still relying on senior male scientists is potentially problematic. Including more women could also be seen as misrepresenting the reality of some fields and, if not done thoughtfully, risks charges of tokenism. As long as the overall numbers of women scientists appearing in the media remains low, all outlets will struggle to prevent those women who do appear from being marked out as different – either as women or as scientists. The Cardiff research shows that in newspaper profiles of scientists, journalists are more likely to comment on a woman’s appearance than a man’s, even where the journalist is consciously trying to undermine stereotypes. Of course, physicist-presenter Brian Cox also attracts plenty of comments about his appearance, with newspapers repeatedly referring to him as ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’. But these comments are always unambiguously positive and don’t come burdened with cultural assumptions that intelligence and masculinity are in opposition.

A trailer for a recent EU Commission campaign to promote women in science shows how bad things can get. The film (archived here) drew on crude stereotypes of both women and science, with women striking poses before a male scientist and lots of high heels and bubbling flasks, all doused in plenty of pink. The film provoked an outcry online and the Commission rapidly withdrew it. Hopefully the BBC will never get it that wrong.

As this suggests, it is not just a question of who is presented but how they are presented. In my current work, I am looking more closely at the way the Horizon strand depicts physics. I am finding that it is not just the relative absence of women that contributes to a gendered representation but also the visual strategies deployed in the films. Horizon programmes about physics use some standard documentary techniques (sequences of talking heads speaking in isolation, on-location filming) and some less typical techniques (strange camera angles, distorting special effects, mysterious-looking sets) that combine to portray physics as asocial, remote and unconventional, as disconnected from society.

The location filming in these programmes frequently depicts depeopled wild environments into which the physicist ventures as an intrepid explorer. The conferences and meetings and daily chatter that make up the routines of a life in physics are never shown. Some episodes overlay the male-dominated world of physics with other highly-masculine fields, such as the military. And many of the programmes invest narrative agency in the machines the physicists use (and in particular, in the ‘biggest’, ‘most powerful’ machines) rather than in the physicists themselves.

Through such visual rhetoric and narrative construction, physics becomes vested with connotations that are arguably less appealing to female viewers, who grow up with cultural expectations that they should be people-centred and well integrated within society, than to male viewers, who grow up with cultural expectations that they should be rough, adventurous and willing to stand out.

The transit of Venus film also used lots of talking heads and footage of telescopes in remote places, and yet it did have a different feel – perhaps because the remote locations were not strongly emphasised, perhaps because the presenters seemed to engage their interviewees in a more conversational manner, or perhaps because the programme was framed, start and finish, with shots of members of the public preparing to view the transit. Or perhaps simply because women outnumbered men. Even so, the programme left me feeling perturbed. It was the transit of Venus. Someone assure me this was not why so many women were included! Please no!

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