Dawkins’ Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing: Why Too Many Y’s?

A review, reposted.

As you probably know, Richard Dawkins was raked over blogospheric coals for having edited a volume of science writing that includes only about 3.6% of its works written by females. The observation was first made here at hgg, and has been discussed here at The Intersection, here at Aetiology, here at Questionable Authority, at Blue Lab Coats, here by Miranda (who has a dissenting view)
and here by Drug Monkey.

I have a few brief comments and then a suggestion.

There is some confusion over the editorial purpose of this work that has come into play in the discussion. Dawkins’ volume is entitled: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, and is editorially described as:

Boasting almost one hundred pieces, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is a breathtaking celebration of the finest writing by scientists–the best such collection in print–packed with scintillating essays on everything from “The Discovery of Lucy” to “The Terror and Vastness of the Universe.”

This is not, as Dawkins has pointed out, an anthology of contemporary work. The word Modern, in academic and near-academic settings, means an historical time period that started some time ago. The Modern Era per se is often officially considered to start at the end of (or maybe the beginning of, or some time during?) the Battle of Bosworth, fought on 22 August 1485. In other words, that which is “Modern” is post-Medieval. Dawkins, in a comment on The Intersection, notes that in the case of this book, “Modern” is meant to be the last 100 years. Either way, the misconception that this anthology is of contemporary writing can be put aside. In fact, a number of the authors are deceased. (Perhaps the best definition of a modern scientist is that you have living graduate students and not all of your ideas are dead.)

A second misconception has been that this is an anthology of “science writers” as in “Carl Zimmer is a science writer.” A quick look at the table of contents would disabuse any one of this notion … which goes a long way towards supporting the idea that one should be cautious in one’s criticism of a book one has not read. This is not an anthology of writers (who write about science). It is an anthology of writing by scientists. Modern scientists. Not contemporary science writers, of which many are women, but significant scientists of the last century or so, of which most are males.

It is possible that 3.6% is close to the actual percentage of women who fit this category over this time period. If so, the number of women in this anthology should have been doubled or tripled (there is no magic number). Why increase the ratio of women? I can’t believe you are asking me this question!!!!! The real question is, can you pick nearly 100 pieces of science writing without regard to gender, then go and get a few more that are female only to up the ratio without ruining the whole project by including a whole bunch of crap that you would otherwise not have included?

Well, lets ask the editor. Go to the introduction of the book and see if Dawkins says something like “We had a hard time narrowing down the choices, but we feel that we’ve done a good job” or if he says “We had a hard time coming with enough good stuff, so there’s some drek in here.” I suspect it would have been possible to add a handful of additional items by women to get that percentage up to double or triple.

Nonetheless, it might be interesting to ask how many women are typically represented in traditional press published science anthologies. Maybe 3.6% is a large number. I looked at a few. One anthology that I checked covered a much, much longer time period than Dawkin’s book, but it did include the modern era by either definition above, and it was about science philosophy not science. Not the best example but a place to start. In that book, Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology, there was not a single female among dozens and dozens of pieces. Then I checked The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science, Including the Original Papers. That’s a great book. It is modern era by Dawkins definition, and all the writings are original, (more or less) peer reviewed, historically significant articles, slightly annotated and in some cases abridged, representing many of the key findings, but not including really recent work (intentionally, according to the editor, Alan Lightman). (If you don’t know that book, you should!) Here we find 4 clearly identifiable females as authors (meaning I did not look up if someone listed with initials only was female) among 25 articles. That is not a ratio of females to males because some authors appear more than once (well, Einstein appears more than once) and several papers have multiple authors. But it is a similar ratio to the one that started this discussion. According to my calculations, The Discoveries has a female representation rate of 16% or more.

I don’t think Dawkins can be faulted for not having a 50% ratio in a book of this type. But 3 or 4% is too low. There should have been more to have increased this number.

Depending on the nature of the anthology, it is possible to provisionally identify why there are fewer women than men in the panoply of possible picks. There were fewer women than men working in science during the “Modern” period. There were fewer opportunities for women who were in science to publish their work. There were limits on women’s opportunities to promote their own work. And so on.

The second two of these factors could have resulted in the interesting situation of some women having done some very important work that does not come to us today in a written form that could be attributed to said woman and published in an anthology like this. If I am not mistaken, Jocelyn Bell Burnell may be an example. She has her name on a couple of items but her contributions were much more significant than reflected in what was published under her name. There are probably many other examples. Women who were in this sort of situation could never be represented in any contemporary anthology of modern works such as the one just edited by Dawkins (or any other I’ve seen).

So here’s a suggestion: Next anthology, do the work necessary to identify a half dozen or so women who’s published works can not really be readily anthologized because of limited opportunities for them to have published, but who’s work was significant nonetheless. Find a contemporary science writer … with two X Chromosomes please … to write up that woman’s work and place her contributions in both a scientific and socio-political context. Discuss the biases and discuss ways to work with these biases in the introduction.

This, along with a more concerted effort to identify women’s work to simply include at a higher rate, should make an interesting anthology with a better gender ratio.

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7 Responses to Dawkins’ Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing: Why Too Many Y’s?

  1. julian says:


    Dr. Dawkins strikes me as someone who had a clear idea of what the biggest contributions to science are. Whether that idea was informed by some unconscious sexism, I don’t know but to me it’s definitely clear he didn’t write down before hand what the criteria was for being considered a major contributor. More like he knew the figures and writers he liked and then went about from there.

    I could easily be wrong, of course. I have not read this piece (and I’m unlikely ever to) and I don’t know much about Dr. Dawkins personally to make that kind of call.

  2. I’ve been meaning to write my review of The Magic of Reality and women don’t get anything like sufficient attention there either. It seemed to me that both author and illustrator are still in “default human”=”male human” mode. Apart from specific instances when there are female mythological figures, most of the illos. are of boys and men, and Dawkins seems to speak as though only boys are reading the book (would it have hurt to have the thought experiment about the kid and ancestor photos be a girl with grandmothers rather than a boy with grandfathers?). I finished the book at the end of November, but I’ve had it sitting around waiting for me to give it a second read & thorough analysis.

  3. Greg Laden says:

    Julian, this has nothing to do with what he or anyone else knew or his personality. (Also, I doubt very much that he was walking around with this completed list in his head.) What matters is that in the present century we have been having the discussion in all fields of science, science communication, and science education of women in STEM. Publishers are involved in this conversation as well. Not considering this is perhaps quite natural, but utterly unacceptable.

  4. maureen.brian says:

    It’s bugging me so Battle of Bosworth 1485 but otherwise I agree. Sorry to be pedantic.

  5. Greg Laden says:

    Thanks for the correction!

  6. nm says:

    I’ll be pedantic, too. The Modern Era isn’t held to have begun with the Battle of Bosworth Field. The Modern Era is held to have begun with industrialization and/or the French Revolution. Everything between the Battle of Bosworth Field/the conquest of Granada/the ascension of François I/whatever marker any particular country uses to indicate the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Era is held to be the Early Modern Period, which is something completely different.

  7. ... says:

    Random thought:

    Maybe there are so few because they spend their time on mediocre blogs complaining to mediocre readers about mediocre offers of coffee?