Monday, January 17, 2011

On the Presence of Female Palaeontologists in the Popular Media

Last week I did a bunch of interviews with many different media outlets about Gwawinapterus. 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?

There is a lot of text coming. I am sorry. Here is a screenshot of the first page of Google Images when you search 'female paleontologist'. I find most of the results baffling.

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.


  1. Actually, I think you may be the first woman in history to name a valid new pterosaur (Natasha Bakhurina's "Phobetor parvus" being recently sunk into _Noripterus complicidens_). Can any pterosaur experts confirm or deny?

  2. Kind of interesting to note that if you search "Male paleontologist" on google, you get images of female paleontologists!

  3. Good points! I know that the unease I feel prior to giving every public presentation is a difficult feeling to overcome. This feeling will never really go away, but the one way I can make sure it doesn't cripple me professionally is to present as much as possible. Fear of public speaking is not just limited to women, but it seems from my anecdotal observations that many women present themselves as less confident public speakers, which probably makes the experience for them less positive than for a more confident speaker. Are they just uncomfortable with public speaking, which leads to the lack of confidence, or do they feel uneasy presenting themselves as an authority?

  4. I should note the female paleontologist search was done on When I search 'male paleontologist' on, I get mostly pictures of dinosaurs (and, um, some coins?)! Oddly, there is one picture of a woman, who I strongly suspect is not a female paleontologist...)

  5. I suspect that it is a combination of things as you've pointed out. You can't help but feel, when it comes to the media, that it is almost the norm to talk to a male palaeontologist because that is what they expect to do. They think palaeontologist = man. I know that not everyone is like this - it just appears to be the norm. Is that indirect sexism? Probably......

  6. Though some women might disagree with me (sorry), I'm pretty confident that we're now well past the stage when the media chooses, or doesn't choose, people because of gender (or ethnicity, for that matter). In fact, TV people are often keen to feature women because they want to appear balanced. Where it's women who have done the research that the media people are interested in, those women get featured. I told the Dangerous people about your research on ankylosaur clubs (I know I wasn't the only person to do this): your gender was irrelevant. As more and more women get into palaeontology (and science in general), we should expect to see better representation - at the moment, it's true that whole fields do remain male-heavy (I don't want to say 'male dominated' as it's not as if we male people are deliberately trying to exclude the other gender).

  7. Don't forget that the last two past presidents of SVP were women. There may be fewer females specifically studying dinosaurs, but there are several female paleontologists.

  8. I agree with previous comment; many of my mentors and collaborators are female paleontologists, but they just don't study dinosaurs. Also, females may be under-represented in North American dinosaur paleontology, but a look into international female paleontologists (who may or may not work on dinosaurs) might return a different picture.

  9. Brad suggested: "Actually, I think you may be the first woman in history to name a valid new pterosaur (Natasha Bakhurina's "Phobetor parvus" being recently sunk into _Noripterus complicidens_). Can any pterosaur experts confirm or deny?"

    I'm a sauropod specialist, but I will deny anyway :-) My University Of Portsmouth stablemate Lorna Steel was lead author on the paper that named Caulkicephalus in 2005. (Darren, shame on you for not pointing this out in your comment!)


    Steel, L., Martill, D.M., Unwin, D.M. and Winch, J. D. (2005). A new pterodactyloid pterosaur from the Wessex Formation (Lower Cretaceous) of the Isle of Wight, England. Cretaceous Research, 26, 686-698.

  10. As someone out side of the paleontology field. I am surprised by what you consider "popular media." If you asked me about a female paleontologist in popular media, my first (and probably only thought) would be Laura Dern's character from Jurassic park. I am waiting for the day when I feel my favorite 6 year old girl is old enough to watch this movie. Because she loves dinosaurs and I can't wait to watch it with her.

    Very few paleontologists make it into popular media at all. If I had to point to real female paleontologists instead of fictional one it would be Mary Schweitzer. I live in the same city, have two degrees from the university she works at, and as far as I can tell she is hiding from the media.

    It is true that kids of a certain age seem to love dinosaurs regardless of their sex. And female paleontologists should not be afraid to go "blow their horn."

  11. Hi folks - thanks for all of the interesting perspectives! A few comments: As Lisa pointed out, women may be less likely to be confident public speakers - it would be interesting to see if there are any studies that support that generalization. If that is the case, it would then be interesting to know why! Darren mentioned that media folks are probably not choosing men over women - I think that's probably true for the most part. However, if you're a media person and someone says 'get me a palaeontologist!', then you will probably think of a select few high-profile palaeontologists, who are all men, and approach them for your show/article/website/whatever. And as I said, I was somewhat surprised to hear repeatedly over the last few weeks that people were surprised to see a female palaeontologist!

    To clarify: I'm not suggesting that SVP favours male speakers over female - what may be happening is that female palaeontologists are not requesting to give talks at the same frequency as male palaeontologists. I am also pretty sure there has to be greater than 10% female dinosaur people in North America. One of these days I will do a post about the women of the Polish-Mongolian Palaeontological Expedition.

    Darren - then my thank-you goes to you and any others!

    Finally, I am relieved to know that I am not the first female to publish a new pterosaur taxon. Phew!

  12. "I think that's probably true for the most part. However, if you're a media person and someone says 'get me a palaeontologist!', then you will probably think of a select few high-profile palaeontologists, who are all men, and approach them for your show/article/website/whatever."

    I have a feeling that this may be self-perpetuating, too. The producers are likely thinking of ratings, and are wont to find people who have done it before in successful science shows.

    I hope that you are on the right track for getting yourself into the media, so that soon more women are able to display paoleontological expertise on TV where the budding female paleontologists will recognize that it is an open career choice for them.

    As to waiting for a six-year-old to be mature enough to see "Jurassic Park," I may be a bad parent but when my daughter was 3 it was her favorite movie. And she applauded when the T rex saved the day by attacking the velociraptors.

  13. One of the first dinosaur documentaries I vividly remember was on PBS and featured Catherine Forster and Paul Sereno talking about a dig they had just completed. I think about it now from time to time when I'm searching literature or working on my own projects, but before that I took it as a given that there were a lot of female paleontologists out there because I remember seeing one so early in life. Now that I'm back in school working on paleontology I can tell you that out of my colleagues a solid half are female, so they're out there! Maybe it's partly because it's two years after this was written as well and it's becoming more popular for the ladies.

  14. Hi Ian - thanks for the comment. It's great that you were inspired early on by a documentary that had a female palaeontologist featured, and it's great to hear that you have many female colleagues. But as I've mentioned, there are lots of female graduate students in palaeontology, but that isn't necessarily translating into female palaeontologists in the media (or female palaeontologists as faculty members, for that matter). Hopefully this will continue to improve!