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Sexism in Science Communication: The Manifesto

18/06/2014 12:43 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 10:59 BST

Journalists tend to spend their days scrutinising other people's business. Science writers are no exception, asking questions like whether scientists are conducting themselves and their research ethically or wondering how science should adapt to an increasingly digital world. Tomorrow, we turn this spotlight on ourselves and our professional community. The plenary session of the 3rd UK Conference of Science Journalists held by the Association of British Science Writers will explore Sexism in Science Journalism.

The topic was sparked by a few high-profile cases in the past few months. The events may have happened in the USA, but the reverberations have been felt around the world. This Manifesto, created by some of the panel members who will kick off tomorrow's session, and inspired by similar efforts in science, is a call to action. It is not intended as a blueprint but rather a starting point for debate and conversation. What are your thoughts?

1. Keep talking about it

Overwhelmingly, there seems to be a dichotomy where some people know all too well how surprisingly common casual sexism and sexual harassment can be, and other people simply refuse to believe it's even an issue. We're science journalists, so of course we want the evidence, but while there is a paucity of data on this, there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that it is worth pursuing. The fact that many female journalists are not surprised by discussions of sexism or harassment - and many male ones are - seems a good indicator that there is a code of silence, or more accurately, a culture of "open secrets".

2. Remember it's about respect

A much-voiced fear is that by having policies, especially in the workplace, on what is and isn't acceptable, you impinge on free speech. Also, who defines what is sexist or not? Whether you are a man or a woman, start from a place of respect, you will almost never go wrong. This doesn't have to be complicated or require a whole new set of social rules. It just requires a bit of internal recalibration. Of course, even if you do start from a place of respect, you may still say something to offend someone. If that happens, apologise, and move on.

3. Create waves

Women often think a lot about how their gender affects the way they are perceived in the workplace. Either they don't want to seem too aggressive (and are told by society to be quiet, accommodating, and not take up too much space) or they want to seem so strong and assertive (and not overly "weak" or "feminine") that they'd like to behave as if crass language or unwanted advances don't bother them. But both of these attitudes end up being constraining, as they mean women would rather just not say anything and get on with their work. Creating waves may feel uncomfortable at first, whether you are a man or a woman, but remind yourself that you are pushing for equality, not special treatment.

4. It's about both men and women

This is not about women vs men, nor is it some female power play for world domination. Where men are still commanding much of the power, it is obvious that they will be vital in helping change the situation. More importantly, issues of sexism and harassment should be tackled by society as a whole - making them women's issues places an unfair burden on women to solve them.

5. Use your influence

Both men and women in positions of power need to push this agenda. Women who have reached the top of their publication or media outlet can't just assume that other women will able to do so easily. Those in senior positions have a responsibility to create an empowering environment in which women or men who experience sexism or harassment can speak up. We all need to make clear they won't tolerate sexism or harassment.