Last week I did a bunch of interviews with many different media outlets about a new paper I had published. One of the most interesting was a conversation I had with CBC Radio Edmonton’s show Radio Active, which aired on Friday evening. You can listen to it here.
I was asked not just about the pterosaur, but about what it is like to be a female palaeontologist and how the media exposure may affect the career of a scientist just starting out. What I thought was interesting was that the interviewers both before and during the Radio Active show noted that most people don’t really associate palaeontology with women, and that dinosaurs seem to be more for boys. I found this a bit surprising because whenever I go out and do activities with younger kids, ALL kids love dinosaurs, regardless of gender. But it got me thinking again about women in palaeontology, and in particular, where are the female palaeontologists in the popular media?
I can think of precious few female palaeontologists that have featured in dino documentaries as talking heads, or that I sort of regularly see in the media reporting on their papers. Karen Chin (in When Dinosaurs Roamed America) and Mary Schweitzer (who works on dinosaur soft tissues and DNA) come to mind immediately. I am sure there are others, but I think we may be swamped by the men in the field if I were to crunch numbers. I don’t think that this is just representative of an age difference either, ie. that its the well-established palaeontologists, who happen to be male right now, that get featured. Dinos Alive! 3D (an Imax film) featured Sterling Nesbitt while he was still a graduate student. And although I know lots of female grad students, I’m not sure I see their work in the media very often. So this raises some questions for me:
1. Are female palaeontologists less likely to be approached by the media? If so, why?
2. Are female palaeontologists less likely to approach the media? If so, why?
3. Are female palaeontologists trying to get their work out there, but are being blocked by the media? If so, why?
I am pretty sure #3 is not the answer. But I bet you #1 and #2 both play a role. Although I am certainly no expert on science communication, here are some things I have learned while working with the media that will maybe help you get started.
1. For the most part, the media will not approach you for a story. They have no idea your paper exists. It is totally, 100% ok for you to contact your university or museum’s media office and say “I wrote a paper and I want to do a press release. Will you help me do this?” The only instance I have ever been approached without a press release was for my PLoS One paper on the math of tail-clubbing in ankylosaurs, and I am pretty sure that is because PLoS One is an open access journal that science reporters regularly check.
2. GIVE TALKS AT SVP. Did you know that only about 10% of the presenters talking about dinosaurs at the Pittsburgh SVP were female? It’s true, I counted! Also, I was one of them. Isn’t that weird? I am pretty sure there are more than 10% female dinosaur people. Giving talks at SVP has let people know that I am out there and working on interesting stuff. As such, when someone was contacted by the team working on what would become Clash of the Dinosaurs, that person knew I was working on tail club biomechanics and recommended they contact me. (Mystery person, who are you? I owe you a thank-you.) I don’t think that would have happened if I had not given a talk at the Cleveland SVP. I have absolutely nothing against poster presentations and I like doing them very much, but I think that talks make you visible to a larger audience and we shouldn’t be afraid to get up there.
3. Go to ‘talking to the media’ workshops. I went to one at SVP a few years back and learned a lot. They are worthwhile.
4. And don’t be afraid to just in general go out and talk about your research. Museum or university or local nonprofit (I’m thinking of the Dinosaur Research Institute from my experience) doing a fundraiser and need a speaker? Local school or library or amateur palaeontology group looking for a workshop or presentation? Yes, of course you would love to!
I won’t get into the merits or drawbacks of talking to the media, but I think overall it is a good thing, and it is also fun! Will it benefit my career in the long run? I don’t know. I think ultimately I just need to keep doing the best science I can, and scientists will hear about my work through journals and meetings regardless of whether or not I publicize my research. But I hope that by putting myself out there as a (reasonably?) normal person who is also female and ALSO a scientist I will show folks that it is normal to have female palaeontologists and scientists. The more women there are visibly doing science, the less the stereotype that science isn’t for girls makes any sense.