Science — without the mansplaining

BigStock Photo

[Editor’s Note: This guest commentary by Seattle-based writer Megan Watzke and data scientist Kimberly Arcand is part of GeekWire’s coverage of International Women’s Day.]

It’s been a rough year or so if you are a woman. Or a person who loves science. (Or part of any underrepresented group for that matter).

A quick online search easily locates where science intersects with the #metoo movement. (See the #astroSH hashtag as one example, including new allegations against a famous physicist/cosmologist just a couple of weeks ago). And despite decades of effort, the number of women and minorities in highest levels of academic science remain painfully low due to a variety of factors.

Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand are the co-authors of popular science books including the new “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe.”

We have spent our entire professional careers working in astronomy and communicating science. And this disparity in gender is strikingly obvious in our chosen fields – at least at the most popular levels. And that’s where our concern lies: who defines what a scientist is to the public?

If you were to ask non-scientists to name a scientist, chances are they would list Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Bill Nye. If you have ever picked up a book about science, you may have noticed that most science books are written by men.

This gender imbalance for the “faces” of science shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the lopsided ratio of men to women at most levels in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. There are some exceptions to be sure (some fields in biology and medicine, for example), yet that is still a general rule.

But decades of suppression of women in science don’t make the current lack of representation in science figures justifiable. In fact, we believe it exacerbates another separate, but undoubtedly, related problem: far too many people, including women, think science is not something “for them.” As just one piece of evidence, a 2017 study in the journal of the American Psychological Association found the climate surrounding STEM fields includes “stereotypes of the field that are incompatible with the way that many women see themselves, negative stereotypes and perceived bias, and few role models for women.”

We strongly believe this lack of diversity of scientists at the highest levels leads to wariness of science by large swaths of the population, and this is fundamentally dangerous. While it might not be imperative to know about our Solar System or how cosmic inflation works in daily life, it is critical that people feel comfortable with science when making decisions about whether to vaccinate their kids, or when trying to understand the ramifications of a changing climate, or deciding what foods to buy at the grocery store.

The good news is that the monolithic perception of what a scientist is (or is not) is beginning to erode. In fact, there are a number of dynamic and brilliant women who have made exciting inroads in the world of science communication and counter the traditional stereotypes of what a scientist “should look like.”

People like Jedidah Isler, Katie Mack, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Emily Calandrelli, Raychelle Burks, Summer Ash, Danielle Lee, and Lisa Randall – just to name a few – have been extremely successful in outlets ranging from online videos to popular books to mainstream TV programs to social media to discuss and exchange ideas on many topics in science.

This is important and a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. We argue that science and society are not fully served until the upper echelon of popular science is represented with a larger diversity of voices. As long as the greater public associates a professional scientist as being one of a handful of (mostly white) males, we all lose out.

We want to see more representation in a field that desperately needs it. If you don’t think that’s the case, then sift through the common occurrences when a man will attempt to explain a topic over a woman, whether it is at a science conference or a public discussion. It happens even if that woman is a top expert in the field.

This “mansplaining” of science just adds to the perception that women are not equal actors in the pursuit of science. Every time a man talks over a qualified woman, it fortifies the glass ceiling that many women in science encounter.

Whenever a male scientist is used in place of an equally capable female scientist in the popular media, that effect is multiplied by the thousands or perhaps millions of people who consume that program. The exclusion sends a clear, even if unintended, message to people who don’t feel connected to science or welcome to join in the first place.  Remember that for many people science doesn’t just possess a glass ceiling — it is an entire glass house to which they were never given a key to enter in the first place.

Communicating science to more women by more women does not mean it has to be done in some sort of “feminine” way with splashes of pink and swipes of lip gloss (not that there’s anything wrong with pink or lip gloss or even, pink lip gloss).  Instead, we think there is simply inherent value in having a diversity of voices and faces to explain science on the largest stages.

The famous quote of “women hold up half the sky” is true, but incomplete. We hold it up, but we also explore it. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of another cliché. The sky isn’t the limit. It’s just where we get started. 

Megan Watzke and Kimberly Arcand are the co-authors of several popular science books. Their latest, “Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe,” was published by Black Dog & Leventhal and is available wherever books are sold. For more on them and their work, visit