Can social media help to bring women out of the shadows of academia? Women shouldn’t be afraid of blogging or self-promotion, writes Athene Donald, who finds that the mentoring support offered in the academic blogosphere can help researchers at any level stamp out their fears.

The challenge of using social media as a way to overcome the frequent invisibility of women in science was at the heart of the recent #SoLo12 Women In Science session organised by Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli (see the Storify here). Their aim for the session was to discuss how social media could help bring women out of the shadows; the collection of blogs prepared in parallel with the physical session,which have been written by women at all stages of life, highlight some of the positives as well as the challenges of using these media to raise one’s profile (they are all listed under ‘News’ on this site).

Looking back, it is painfully clear that women’s place in the history of science is small, and is perceived to be even smaller than it actually was because people too easily downplayed the contributions that were made.  A series of recent events have focussed on the historical situation, such as those at the Royal Society (covered here by Ed Yong)  and a recent meeting of the Women’s History Network (described here). Lurking in the opening sentence of this paragraph is also that only-too-familiar spirit of unconscious bias, so that where women did play a part, their contribution was often minimised by those around them who were perhaps unused to crediting women with anything beyond being decorative. In consequence, their contributions have never re-emerged from the shadows. But, what is past is past and today we need to worry not only about the women already contributing to fantastic discoveries in science, but those who are just setting out on a path through scientific education and their early careers. We need to make sure that that low visibility does not persist.

Hence the need for the #SoLo12WIS session last weekend which took up these themes and considered issues such as:

  • Are there risks in openly identifying yourself as female?
  • How can social media help raise your profile?
  • What are the wider benefits for your career?
  • How do you begin?
  • What is the purpose of blogging?

If you want some excellent reading about why women should be using social media, and what they need to be aware of before embarking on such an adventure, I strongly recommend you browse the diverse collection of views represented by the various associated blogs. One of the more recent ones comes from the US-based FemaleScienceProfessor, who was one of my own early role models as I set out on my blogging career.  She it was who introduced me to the idea of blogging as a form of online mentoring, an idea I love; an idea which also provides yet another reason for women to jump in and blog, since your reach can be much wider (if unknown) than face-to-face mentoring can provide.

Women may indeed be more prone than men to see risks in writing under their own names, and in some cases clearly with extremely good reason (Rebecca Watson’s name was mentioned in this context at the session; she has been the subject of much disgusting vitriol). But women may also simply be too risk-averse to start blogging, fearing less concretely that they ‘aren’t up to it’ or ‘they wouldn’t know what to say’. I know some women, at all stages of their careers, who have expressed anxieties along these lines and to some extent the only way to overcome it is to try something out. The blog can always softly and suddenly vanish away, like a boojum, if it turns out not to work for you – but you will never know if you don’t try.  Based on what I’ve learned in the last 2+ years of blogging I would say benefits I hadn’t seen coming include that I’ve improved and diversified my writing skills and found a brand new set of lovely online acquaintances, as well as had a lot of fun.

However, there are other subtle questions that underlie the question of to blog or not to blog. If you start a blog, what then? How do you get a readership? Do you have to do that dreadful thing ‘self-promote’ in order to make sure people read it and is that anathema for many would-be bloggers (as for women in other instances as I discussed here)?  What follows from here on is my own personal experience; maybe others will not relate to this but, as a senior woman who is expected to be past the stage of nerves and reticence, let me speak out. I found it painful to self-promote at the outset, but I have more or less got inured to doing so through Twitter. But as recent experiences showed me, there is more to it than just that, and support from friends is vital in keeping fighting the good fight.

At this point let me introduce a different thread of recent events in the blogosphere: The Good Thinking Society’s Science Blog prize, announced a few weeks back. This is, as far as I know, the first of its kind in the UK and with a prize of £1000 not to be sniffed at. Entry was by self-nomination, so it did not need the ‘great and good’ to nominate you; it needed you to have enough chutzpah yourself to apply. The shortlist was announced this past week and I am thrilled, not to mention surprised, to find myself on it. I am also delighted to find there are several other women on it: Dorothy Bishop, Suzi Gage and Kat Arney, this last as part of a trio of bloggers writing for Cancer Research.  I remarked on this visible female presence on Twitter, commenting that in the light of the anxieties expressed about blogging at #solo12wis it was good to see women coming through on the shortlist. Explicitly I said;

In light of issues raised at #solo12wis great that 3/10 women on Good Thinking Society’s Science Blog Prize shortlist (which was inaccurate given the Cancer Research’s Blog involved Kat Arney, although I hadn’t twigged that at the moment of tweeting, so the number should have been 4 – to make it 4/12) But it’s encouraging anyhow given some offline discussions I’d had with reticent women.

To which Ed Yong (another name on the 10-strong shortlist) replied; As someone who acts as a role model for said reticent women, i think you count twice.

Which was very kind of him, but based on an entirely false assumption in this case as I pointed out, Thanks but who said I wasn’t one of them? I had to be encouraged to apply…
A point confirmed by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith; I can confirm reticence was demonstrated and persuasion was necessary.

What is the moral of this story? I think it’s at least twofold. Firstly, the support – or mentoring – of others is hugely important for us all, and can be the make-or-break difference in some instances and not just in this narrow sphere of blogging. Sarah-Jayne and Uta approached several women bloggers they knew to encourage us to apply, recognizing all the factors I described previously that tend to hold women back from ‘self-promotion’. It was not merely in the abstract I mentioned in that earlier post, that the blogging prize’s rules of self-nomination might deter some women: I had felt that barrier myself.

I am sure it doesn’t need to be women encouraging women, as it was in this case; it wouldn’t surprise me to know Ed Yong himself had done something similar with his circle of female blogger friends. What is needed is the encouragement that one isn’t behaving as a ‘naughty little girl’, impertinently pushing oneself forward and stepping out of line. Early societal messages received by young girls somehow teach so many that it is not appropriate to self-promote, although it probably isn’t consciously imposed or even consciously received.  I certainly know that I felt very uncomfortable filling in a self-nomination form that required me to write down why I thought my blog was so great, and I wouldn’t have done it without encouragement.

The second ‘moral’ is equally important: just because one is senior does not preclude feelings of anxiety, reticence or general lack of self-confidence lurking beneath what may look like a calm exterior. I’ve said this previously about impostor syndrome; what I’m describing here is different but it is a close relation of that complaint. Those setting out on their careers should realise one of the key differences between themselves and those further up the ladder may be that you learn to control and mask anxieties as time passes, not that they vanish overnight on some joyous occasion. I would guess that some specific fears probably do fade away but others never do. Comparing myself with those around me, I suspect that every individual has a different spectrum of activities that still seem terrifying long after others have paled into insignificance. I would also speculate that women are no different from men in this, but women are more likely to allow themselves to be paralysed or held back by these anxieties whereas, the encouragement to risk-taking to which boys and young men are often exposed may make it easier for them to trample on their fears. So, anxious women out there, I guess my take-home message is:
‘find supporters, take risks and stamp on those fears’.

Advice I will continue to try to follow myself.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the Impact of Social Sciences blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

This blog was originally published on Athene’s personal blog and the SpotOn website. It is republished with permission here.


About the author:
Athene Donald is Professor of Experimental Physics at Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. Athene has been at Cavendish since 1983, and became a professor in 1998.


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