One day last October, the current group of Knight Science Journalism Fellows called me into our sixth-floor conference room here at Building E19 and told me they wanted to share a concern. They were looking at our lineup of fall KSJ seminar speakers, and they were seeing a serious preponderance of men.
In a place like Boston/Cambridge, with its large community of women scientists and engineers, the Fellows politely asked, shouldn’t it be possible to recruit at least an equal number of male and female speakers?
At a university like MIT, where women made up 46 percent of the entering undergraduate class last year, what kind of message did it send, exactly, that only four of our 21 fall speakers, or 19 percent, were women?
When I realized what I’d done, I was mortified. Our twice-weekly seminars, which feature Boston-area scientists doing cutting-edge research as well as top practitioners from the worlds of journalism and publishing, are the most important part of the KSJ curriculum. Recruiting great seminar speakers is one of the main jobs of the KSJ director, and it requires attention to a number of factors, including balance across scientific fields and, yes, across genders.
The truth was that when I stepped into this job last July, my main priority had been to ensure that we had a full complement of compelling speakers for the fall. I had started off by calling the people I knew. I hadn’t thought much about balance.
And that’s a problem. My personal politics are liberal and feminist, but that hadn’t saved me from engaging in passive sexism—a kind of discrimination through absent-mindedness. It’s this type of inaction by people in positions of power, no less than active bias, that perpetuates the gender imbalances we see in institutions around the world.
Fortunately, there was time for repairs. I’d just begun to recruit speakers for the spring seminar series, and I was able to put together a lineup featuring a robust mix of women and men. In the end, barring more blizzard-related cancellations, our speaker count for this academic year will be in the neighborhood of 25 women and 26 men. The Knight Fellows get the credit for that; I’m grateful that they spoke up.
Having been sensitized to the issue in a very personal way, I was on the lookout for opportunities to explore gender imbalances in science journalism and in science itself. That’s why I was so happy to connect with Cristine Russell, a veteran science journalist from the Washington Post who is now a senior fellow in the Environment and Natural Resources Program of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Cris was thinking about some of the same themes, and we hatched a plan to devote one of KSJ’s spring seminar slots to a joint Harvard-MIT forum entitled “Sexism, Science and Science Writing: Promoting Women Leaders in the Lab and Newsroom.”
That event is now coming up fast—it’s on Thursday, April 2.
Cris activated her powerful network to recruit three amazing panelists: Ann Marie Lipinski, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, who is now curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism; Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University; and Jennifer Bogo, the executive editor at Popular Science.
The forum they’re headlining will start at 6:00 pm at the Wiener Auditorium on the ground floor of the Taubman Building at Harvard Kennedy School, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA. A reception will follow. The event is public, but because space is limited, we’re asking attendees to RSVP here.
Here’s Cris’s summary of the evening’s basic theme:
Despite considerable progress, problems of gender bias, pay inequity, and sexual harassment persist in journalism, science, and science writing. Prominent female leaders will share their experiences and pose potential solutions for overcoming barriers and promoting women to top posts in the lab and newsroom. The panel will also look at strategies for educating and mentoring the next generation of women, encouraging them not only to enter the pipeline but to advance toward careers at the pinnacle of their professions.
We hope you’ll join the Knight Fellows and other members of the local scientific, journalist, and academic communities for this important event, which is being co-sponsored by Knight Science Journalism at MIT, the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics & Public Policy, the HKS Women & Public Policy Center, and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.
Meanwhile, if you’d like to catch any of KSJ’s upcoming seminar speakers, such as Felice Frankel, Heather Goldstone, Judy Layzer, Natasha Schull, Jill Abramson, Susan Hockfield, Naomi Oreskes, or Pardis Sabeti, please check out the KSJ speaker calendar.