On the Lack of Science Books by Women

Writer Jo Marchant, author of Decoding the Heavens, ponders the lack of prominent science books by women. I was wondering on the same when earlier today I refreshed my memory of great science books I’d read.

This isn’t for a lack of women writing about science. When I took a course in science communication at Imperial College more than a decade ago, we often used to wonder why so many of us (around 25 in a class of 30) were female. I’ve since worked at both New Scientist and Nature, where the gender balance of writers and editors is very equal. Women are well represented at the annual awards of the Association of British Science Writers.

So are these talented women choosing not to write books? Do they find it harder to get book deals? Are their books taken less seriously when they’re published? Do science writers tend to move on to books later in their careers, when women’s professional goals have often had to take second place to childcare?

Similar questions are being posed in every field where women are under-represented at the highest levels, but with books so crucial for bringing science to a popular audience, I think it’s important to ask them here too.

Get the rest at Why are so few popular science books written by women? 

4 responses

  1. It’s interesting to me that you phrase this as an issue of “prominent” books (Jo didn’t use that word). Prominent and good aren’t the same; in an ideal world good ought to be a necessary pre-condition for prominent (though in the real world it may not be), but it is not sufficient.

    When I look at what books do/don’t become prominent, and therefore of interest to judges, I reluctantly have to point to the continuance of unconscious gender bias. I am enmeshed, as you are, in social networks of male and female science-writers who are writing books and talking about them; my anecdotal but frequent observation is that men are more likely to talk up, recommend and push along books by men. This may track back to the well-observed phenomenon that men are acculturated to promote themselves in ways that women are not (and therefore have to struggle to do), and behind the scenes are asking for promotion from other men in a way that women don’t. Repeat that pattern enough times, and it becomes a groundswell in favor of books written by men.

    Sheril points to HeLa as a rebuke to Jo’s observation, but I’d argue that Rebecca’s success is actually an exception that proves this rule, in that there have been no other HeLas. I can’t think of any other science books by women that have gotten such attention, while I think one could point to a number of science books by men (cough Lehrer cough) that have risen to the top of the marketplace and stayed there a good long time.

    • I’m with you throughout here. But please note that in her post, Jo did speak of attention to books that brings them to prominence, such as (and specifically) prize lists; a lack of books by women on that year’s Royal Society long list for its prize was what prompted her post.

      That said, I’ll admit my ‘prominent’ was less that precise. I perhaps wrote my hook/intro a bit hurriedly, as I wanted mainly to efficiently call attention to Jo’s post and let it speak on its own.

      Jo also mentions HeLa as an exception to the rule while also suffering from it: Despite selling well and getting wide acclaim, it was not on the RS prize list that year. Certainly the book was prominent; yet it failed to make that list, which is perplexing, even though it’s also marvelously, richly, originally good.

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