In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential uses of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.
These disparities, both in the absolute numbers of men and women, and the ways in which their quotes were used, leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists. Indeed, two of the technique’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are women, and both of them spoke at the same conference from which I reported. And yet, if you read my piece, you could be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR was almost entirely the work of men.
Two months later, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance published a piece in which she analyzed the gender ratio of the sources in her Atlantic stories. In 2013, with the help of a computer scientist at MIT, she had trawled through a year of her own work. Of the people she mentioned across 136 articles, just 25 percent were women. She repeated the exercise for stories from 2015 and found an even lower figure: 22 percent. As Adrienne said:
These numbers are distressing, particularly because my beats cover areas where women are already outnumbered by men—robotics, artificial intelligence, archaeology, astronomy, etc. Which means that, by failing to quote or mention very many women, I’m one of the forces actively contributing to a world in which women’s skills and accomplishments are undermined or ignored, and women are excluded.
She is right. Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumen. They need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.