Herzberg medal coverage follow up

On February 18, I wrote about two pieces of national coverage of the Herzberg medal, won this year by Victoria Kaspi. She is the first woman to do so, and the two pieces approached this element of the story very differently. One (written by Emily Chung for CBC) reported that fact briefly but focused solely on her award-winning research. The other (written by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail) made the breaking of a gender barrier a central part of the story along with the research that had earned her the award. As a reader, they both struck me very differently, and I wanted to explore why. While it is very important to bring attention to gender issues in science, I felt that writing the prize announcement as a gender in science story shared some resemblance to a pattern Shachar (2000) identified in scientist profiles in the New York Times: the “inspiring woman in science” story which often emphasizes how a woman has overcome challenges (such as those related to family care) and acts as a role model, for example. I argued that it is a format that can have the unintended consequence of reinforcing the perception of women as irregular participants in science.

After my post went up, Ivan Semeniuk contacted me to ask if I would be willing to post a response from him explaining some of the editorial decisions that went into the piece. I said, yes of course. Through our correspondence he expressed concern about the original title of the post. As a result, I have changed the title of that original post and added a correction at the top.

His response follows (including that concern). It is presented in full as it was sent to me, and I have in turn responded below. My original post was written from my perspective as a science educator with a strong concern for how media messages about women in science impact girls and young women. It is interesting and helpful to me to learn more about the decisions that went into framing the article, and I can appreciate the very different perspective of a journalist and editorial team from my own perspective outside of that world. I really appreciate that he took the time to engage with me and provide these details. I do want to make clear from the outset, however, that my first post was not meant as an accusation of an individual writer with a bias problem. As reiterated above, my interest was in making sense of two very different approaches to the story from the perspective of a few studies that have examined how women scientists are presented in the media.

In her blog post, originally titled “Why do we always have to say she’s a good mom too?” Marie-Claire Shanahan seems to suggest that a journalist who reports on gender imbalance is reinforcing gender imbalance. This is flawed premise and must be rejected. To do otherwise would be a setback to efforts to improve gender equality in Canadian research institutions.

Like Marie-Claire Shanahan, I agree that it would be cause for concern if a profile of a prominent Canadian researcher on the occasion of her winning a major professional award were to dwell on her parenting and other gender-related qualities instead of her contributions as a scientist.

But I emphatically disagree that this description bears any resemblance to my recent profile of astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi who this month became the first woman to win the Herzberg Gold medal. Although a blog post is not required to meet the standards of academic rigour or journalistic accountability, I am dismayed to see such a careless and misinformed characterization of my work.

Dr. Shanahan compares my story in unfavourable terms to one by Emily Chung which appeared on the CBC Technology & Science website. In contrast to my story, she writes, the CBC piece is “a straightforward account of a highly acclaimed scientist” because it makes only a passing mention of that fact Dr. Kaspi is the first woman to win the medal.

Emily Chung is an excellent science journalist and a friend. I admire her work. But in this instance, our stories about Dr. Kaspi are not comparable in scope or depth — a fact that Dr. Shanahan manages to overlook entirely.

The CBC story devotes about 650 words to its description of Dr. Kaspi and her research accomplishments. It quotes one person — Dr. Kaspi herself — before moving on to another prize-winner.

In contrast, my profile of Dr. Kaspi runs over 1000 words and draws on multiple sources including colleagues and peers, some (but not all) of whom are quoted directly. My reporting included spending two mornings with Dr. Kapsi and her team at the McGill Space Institute in Montreal and a review of her published work. It’s clear my piece was designed from the outset to be a larger story than the CBC item. It presents a fuller portrayal of Dr. Kaspi that includes both professional and personal details.

Contrary to Dr. Shanahan’s assertions, it’s clear that my piece, just like the CBC story, “dives into the complexity of [Dr. Kaspi’s] work, her career path as scientist, and why she is so deserving of the honour.” But because my story is longer, it also has the space to do something more.

That something more is an exploration of why Dr. Kaspi is the first woman to win Canada’s top science prize. For my assigning editor, Christine Brousseau, and me, this is what made the story a contender for front page treatment by The Globe and Mail. (It did appear on the front page in most print editions.)

It is stunning — one might say appalling — to realize that it has taken until 2016 for a female researcher in Canada to earn this recognition. We chose to draw attention to this because of its broader significance as an indicator of gender imbalance in Canada’s research enterprise. Anyone who does not understand why this is an important issue for our country has not been paying attention.

In newspaper writing, the mechanics of a front page-style story requires that the most salient information — the stuff that makes the case for why the reader should pay attention — is typically delivered within the first 150 words. This is deliberate, in order to convey that information “before the turn”, when the story goes from the front page to an interior page. My story obeys this rule when it first states that Dr. Kaspi has won the prize, along with who she is, and then makes note of the historic circumstances of this particular award.

The very next thing my story does is ask why it has taken so long for a Canadian woman to be recognized in this way. The answer, in part, is that very few full professors at Canadian universities who receive federal funding for scientific research are women. This points to the broader significance of Dr. Kaspi’s achievement and, from The Globe and Mail’s perspective, makes this a national story rather than simply a science story. To write it differently would be to bury the lede — a mistake my editors would quickly have remedied had I chosen to do so.

So what of my previous year’s coverage of chemist Axel Becke, a male researcher who won the Herzberg medal in 2015? Dr. Becke, also an exceptional scientist, broke no gender barriers in winning the medal. My story about him ran 700 words, leaving little room for anything beyond a description of his work. I did not visit him personally. The treatment is different not because of gender bias but because, from a news perspective, it is an altogether different type of story.

It would be a fairer comparison to ask how I covered a female researcher who similarly won an important award but was not the only woman to do so. That was the case last year when Janet Rossant, a senior scientist in developmental and stem cell biology became a Gairdner Award winner. (To be specific: She was the first female Gairdner Wightman Award winner, which is reserved for Canadian researchers, but not the first woman to be named a Gairdner winner overall and so the story did not expand on that.)


My story about Dr. Rossant barely touches on gender or personal matters, except to note that she came to Canada after marrying a Canadian — a relevant piece of information for that particular profile.

A more careful analysis might also look to see if I have written about Dr. Kaspi on other occasions when she was not crossing a significant gender milestone. I have done so, and the result is a gender neutral story about Dr. Kaspi’s work:


To counter the possibility of selection effects on my part, I would also point to my past 10 stories in which a female scientist is featured prominently [see list below]. Only in one case is gender discussed in any significant way – and then only because Canadian anthropologist Marina Elliott was one of a handful of all-female researchers who were physically small enough to squeeze into a cave bearing the fossil remains of a previously undescribed human relative.

My work at The Globe and Mail consistently shows that I am not, as Dr. Shanahan implies, inclined to portray female researches as women first, scientists second. In my previous professional roles as an editor at Nature and New Scientist and as a producer of science television, I can point to scores of additional examples where stories under my direction assumed a gender neutral stance except in cases when gender was an essential element of the story. All of these stories pass the “Finkbeiner test” as reiterated by Dr. Shanahan.

It’s worth noting that the term Finkbeiner test — to the extent that it has relevance here — was not coined in connection with a story where gender actually matters, but in those where it clearly doesn’t. Regardless of what Dr. Shanhan seems to think, Canada’s females scientists are most definitely not living in a world where gender doesn’t matter when it comes to recognition and advancement. And for The Globe and Mail, gender is clearly part of the story when it comes to Dr. Kaspi’s prize. Furthermore, sexual harassment of female researchers has been a pressing issue in astronomy and other science faculties this past year and Dr. Kaspi’s leadership role in her field required that I explore her experiences and attitudes on that score as well.

These are all facts that I feel Dr. Shanahan has overlooked in error. But in one particular detail, I feel her post crosses the boundary from uninformed to misleading.

This is because the title of the blog initially asked: “Why do we always have to say she’s a good mom too?”

The answer is we don’t, and I didn’t.

While my story makes mention of the fact that Dr. Kaspi has three school-age children (in the 20th paragraph of the piece) it makes no assertions whatsoever about whether Dr. Kaspi is a “good mom”. As a journalist, such a statement would at least require me to interview family members and friends. I did not do so in this case because Dr. Kaspi’s parenting was not the focus of the profile. The title misrepresents my work unfairly and Dr. Shanahan should acknowledge this point for the benefit of her readers.

So why did I mention Dr. Kaspi’s family at all? Because unlike most Herzberg medal winners, Dr. Kaspi is not approaching retirement. She is in the prime of her research career and also running an institute as well as mentoring a large team of graduate students and post docs. It is widely acknowledged that female researchers tend to face more barriers and demands on their time when they are raising families than their male counterparts do specifically because of differences in social expectations related to parenting.

It would have been a disservice to readers of The Globe and Mail for me not to address the significant time pressures that Dr. Kaspi faces in a system that has not yet learned to accommodate senior scientists of the highest rank who also happen to be working mothers.

To my mind, this blog post missed an excellent opportunity to examine the real challenges that journalists face when trying to portray female scientist in a non-patronizing way against the backdrop of a persistently imbalanced system of academic rewards and incentives. Instead it uses a misinterpretation of my story to set up a straw man argument and claims The Globe and Mail is somehow flaunting Dr. Kaspi’s femininity by drawing attention to her barrier breaking accomplishment. This is not just wrong. It is counterproductive in the extreme.

Let’s be clear that there are very few voices in the media paying attention to gender issues in Canadian science. It is imperative that those of us who are doing so not be intimidated or shut down from reporting on these issues because of misperceptions like those presented here.

I sincerely hope that Dr. Shanahan will consider amending her analysis where it concerns my profile of Dr. Kaspi and I encourage her to examine the additional examples of my work listed here.

I really want to thank Ivan Semeniuk for engaging with these ideas and for sharing his expertise and perspective here. I appreciate him sharing the details above of how the decision was made to report the story in this way and understand how they saw gender as an essential piece of this story from a news point of view. I do think we have the same goals in mind: a media environment that recognizes gender issues in science but that also supports women’s scientific achievements at the highest level. But these are very difficult and complicated issues. It’s not a surprise that based on the different perspectives and expertise we bring to this problem, that we see some of the journey to those goals differently.

Media representations are particularly powerful for creating and reinforced expectations of what it means to be a woman scientist. Adrienne Lafrance, who writes for the The Atlantic, has taken it so seriously that for the past two years she has hired an MIT grad student to analyse her stories for unintended gender bias in her choice of sources. She published her second self-report earlier this week. In explaining why she conducts the analysis, she quotes Julie Burton, the president of the Women’s Media Center: “Media tells us our roles in society—it tells us who we are and what we can be.”

Inspiring women in science stories, like those described by Shachar (2000) and to which I compared the Herzberg coverage, are difficult to wrestle with because they can mean very different things, even at the same time. These stories can be read to celebrate women’s accomplishments in difficult circumstances and to bring attention to these challenges. But they take on a different meaning when viewed together as a repeating pattern over time in the media at large, creating expectations around what it means to be a women in science. One of the most powerful and problematic forces facing women and girls in science are the impressions created and reproduced in everyday conversations and interactions. Media representations like this become part of the fabric of how we talk about who does science: in boardrooms, labs, classrooms and around dinner tables.

Education efforts aimed at encouraging girls face similar challenges. In some of my own research, we have found that women in undergraduate physics are more likely to want to stay in physics when their high school teachers explicitly talked about gender issues. But on the other hand, a high school physics program created specifically to encourage girls’ interest (led by a leading researcher and educator on equity in science education) had surprising unintended consequences for the way that it portrayed the role of girls in physics as separate and different from the role of boys, suggesting to the girls that they weren’t doing real physics. For women scientists, patterns in the way that they are written and talked about (such as the “inspiring woman in science story” pattern) can contribute to creating a narrow version of who they can be, of what roles are available even when the intent is to highlight the struggles they may face. It was from this perspective that I wrote my post.

I do also need to address some of the specific claims that are made about my argument because I think we have a misunderstanding of my intent. The post was not an accusation that Semeniuk himself has a history of gender bias. I appreciate the additional stories that he shared and there are more below. I did compare to the article about last year’s winner, but I did so to support the argument that the prize itself was newsworthy; It wasn’t only newsworthy because a woman had won this year. To me, that suggested that a specific decision had been made to write this year’s announcement as a story about women in science. And I think his explanation of the processes above is very helpful in understanding how and why that decision was made and how it relates to the ways in which a news organization decides how to frame a story.

With respect to my understanding of women’s challenges in science, I most emphatically do not believe that Canada’s female scientists are living in a world where gender doesn’t matter. Quite the opposite, I think it often matters each and every day for everyone from senior award winners to new grad students. I think where we differ, however, is in its place in this particular issue. In my conclusion, I expressed my wish that this had been written as two different stories: one highlighting an exceptional scientist and one exploring the reasons why no women had yet been won this medal. My use of the Finkbeiner test, and my wish that this could have been written as two stories, are because I see the prize itself and the reasons she is the first women to win it as somewhat separate issues. She won the prize because of her significant scientific accomplishments, not because of her gender or because she was able to do good work in spite of her gender. And these same challenges equally face non-award-winners. And therefore I would see a place for a profile that reflects that (thereby also avoiding the inspiring woman in science pattern) and a separate examination of why it has taken so long. While it is certainly less in depth, The Montreal Gazette, for example, ran a brief award profile and then an editorial on the shortage of women in science and a Q+A with another female award winner, Elena Bennett, on the topic. But to be very clear, I don’t think Semeniuk or anyone at the Globe and Mail believes she won for her gender either. Though I see them separately, I understand his perspective that from a journalistic point of view they saw this as single story where being the first woman was central and that this made it a front page story.

I would also like to commend Semeniuk on addressing harassment. I did overlook making that compliment in my original post. Having decided to frame this around women’s challenges in science, I commend strongly the choice to include harassment among them. This is a more difficult topic, often overlooked, and I should have said that.

Finally, though, with respect to the implication that the intent here is to shut down or intimidate journalists from covering gender issues in science: This is so far from my argument that I hardly know how to respond. It was stated explicitly in my post that these are important issues and that if a story were written on them tomorrow (separate from an award profile), I would read it enthusiastically. And I have happily talked to journalists from Macleans and the Globe and Mail about gender issues in science in the past. My intention here was to highlight the challenges that can be inherent in these stories. It was my personal response to how this one might be interpreted and talked about within that context. There are absolutely no easy answers when it comes to changing perceptions and experiences for women in science. Even efforts to encourage, support and make change (and I have been involved in many) have unintended consequences and messages. It’s something I think about often in reflecting on my own early work in science outreach. If there were simple answers (in more media coverage, better educational programs or policy changes) we wouldn’t still be here after decades of efforts to change the representation of women in science, in particular in physics.

Again I want to thank Ivan Semeniuk for engaging, for offering to share his perspective here and for his efforts to draw attention to these issues. Additional supporting links that he sent are below.


Ten recent stories by Ivan Semeniuk that feature female researchers:

January 19, 2016

Jack Goordial, environmental microbiologist


December 17, 2015

Sally Leys, developmental biologist


October 9, 2015

Katie Gibbs, biologist & director, Evidence for Democracy


September 15, 2015

Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, climate policy analyst


September 10, 2015

Marina Elliott, paleoanthropologist


May 11, 2015

Kaitlin Alexander, oceanographer


May 11, 2015

Molly Shoichet, biomedical engineer


May 7, 2015

Catherine Johnson, planetary scientist


April 17, 2015

Jane Goodall, primatologist


April 8, 2015

Merritt Turetsky, ecologist


Recent stories by Ivan Semeniuk related to gender in Canadian science:

April 10, 2015

“Science and engineering hall of fame lacks female nominations”


May 6, 2015

Canadian museum urged to address gender gap in science hall of fame




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