Bring it on: science in women’s magazines

Today I want to explain a bit of why I write this blog, and alongside that explain why I think science writers should write for women’s magazines, and push for publication in them. I write because I love science and because I think it is too often dismissed as boring, difficult, dull or uncool when in reality it is none of the above. I write because I want more people to love science like I do, not because I think if more people like it, it’ll be cooler and I won’t be such a geek, but because I think if you shut yourself off from science because you think it uninteresting or intimidating then you are missing out, because science is thrilling, awe-inspiring, amazing, mind-blowing, and hundreds of other adjectives too. But I believe one of those adjectives should be definitely be ‘accessible’. 
On this note, I wonder why science has never really made it into such a wide-ranging genre as women’s magazines. Partially I suspect because there are not that many prominent female science writers to put it there, and partly because many people feel that science shouldn’t be in women’s magazines, that it has no place there. Well, in the case of the former, much has been written recently about the difficulties of being a woman science blogger and/or writer, and I leave it to people better placed than me to comment on why women are less prominent in this field and how to address that, such as Kate Clancy and Christie Wilcox. However, on the second point, I strongly disagree. And here’s why.

Ultimately, as science communicators we have to ask who we want to communicate science to.  Any science communicator who is truly passionate about their subject should want as many people as possible to share in their enthusiasm, and that includes people with no education, people with masses of education, people who are women, people who are children, people who are football fans, intellectuals or hippies, or that weird bloke at the bus stop with his pants on his head. Science shouldn’t be exclusive; it is after all the knowledge which allows us to wonder at the magnificence of life. 

So why is there so much reticence regarding publishing science in women’s magazines? And does it come from the publishers, or the writers? Well to either group I would ask this… does reading a women’s magazine automatically mean you don’t want the opportunity to learn something scientific? That you don’t deserve it because you’re daring to read something that may be deemed frivolous? Or that you’re bound to be uninterested because you’d much rather look at handbags and learn about weight loss? None of the above, actually. As far as I can see, the only necessary step to getting science into women’s magazines is tailoring the science to the demographic, which is always necessary when writing for any reason at all.  
But I fear that some science writers don’t want to tailor their writing to the readers of women’s magazines. Do they think it’s below them to write about science for this specific audience? I don’t see why scientific issues that are relevant to women’s lives can’t be discussed and explained and understood. It’s not unusual to be more interested in something when it is made relevant to your life, in fact almost all science communication should try and relate to real life, or people won’t care. Why the hell would they?
So we should write about women’s science in women’s magazines… write about which painkillers work best against period pain, and explain why that is. Write about how the contraceptive pill works in a molecular level, and why it causes such an astonishing array of side effects. Write about the science of sex, but y’know accurately. Write about the science of everyday life. Write about the science of alcohol, food and weight loss. Write about being a scientist. Write about pseudoscience, for heaven’s sake. Pouring scorn on astrology, homeopathy and alternative medicine is easy, any science writer can do that. Explaining why astrology is nonsense to the people who read horoscopes the most would surely be a much better way of going about the business. 
We shouldn’t be judgemental or squeamish about how we bring science to people; we should use what is interesting to our target audience, and stuff whether it’s considered ‘of value’ to the scientific world. After all, if you make just one piece of science interesting and relevant to someone, they are already much more likely to try and find out more. Don’t patronise women by assuming that because they read a magazine targeted at their gender, they won’t want to read something educational or just plain interesting. To my knowledge, finding any aspect of science fascinating, stimulating and exciting is not mutually exclusive with finding handbags, shoes, diet plans, beauty tips, real-life stories, recipes, feminism, equal rights or celebrity gossip fascinating, stimulating and exciting. There should be no need for women scientists to deny an interest in the latter subjects, nor is there a need for lay women to deny an interest in science. 
We say we need more women in science, but how can we achieve that unless we set out to show all women how incredible science is? As long as it’s all accurate, interesting, fun and relevant, let’s go for it. 

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25 thoughts on “Bring it on: science in women’s magazines

  1. Yes! And especially, I think, in teen girls' magazines. I've just been reading about this in Reclaiming The F-Word – funny how you always seem to be exposed to one idea over and over once you hear it once!

  2. I totally agree. Especially about exposing pseudo-science, which seems to be chronic in women's magazines. Subjects as wide and varied as sex, diet, psychology, and medicine are often covered in women's magazines but almost always with no basis in fact or actual science. You're more likely to find an article about homoeopathic medicine than you are about medical research into things that, you know… might actually work.The lack of proper science in women's magazines can often lead it's readers into think that real science is "boys stuff", which is nonsense. And like you say, how can we increase the number of women working in science, if a large portion of women aren't shown how interesting, brilliant, and more importantly, relevant to them it really is?Of course women could go out and pick up an actual science magazine, but if you're not someone who studies science regularly (whether male of female) a lot of what is written in them may go over your head.Making science interesting, relevant and accessible, is a problem the media has with people in general though, not just women. It's true across the board in women's magazines, men's magazines, newspapers, and television.

  3. I *do* write for women's magazines (SELF, Health and More); in fact, they're my primary source of income. I have excellent editors, they never dumb me down unnecessarily — though they tailor the language to their audience, which is something that every large-audience magazine does — and in the case of SELF, they have excellent researchers and fact-checkers who go over my copy, my interview transcripts and the original journal articles and back me up or correct me. Plus, I reach millions of readers.

  4. When this issue is raised, I always think Vivienne Parry makes a good case study. She's a respected British journalist whose CV combines presenting for Radio 4 with writing a column for Good Housekeeping. Writing for women's magazines didn't stop her from receiving an OBE for "services to the public understanding of science".

  5. It's a great idea in principle Katie. I just wonder how you put it into practice. I do think that science is more interesting to men just on the basis of our culture. We are indoctrinated to find how things work interesting in a way young girls are not.Also understanding science, really understanding it, takes time. And, again in our society, women have less of that. Don't wish to be negative but just saying its a real challenge.Also, on a personal note, science should be accessible but I like having to work to understand it. That's part of the fun. Having read about three books on Einstein I still don't understand relativity really. But I get a little closer to it every time.

  6. Nice work, Katie. And Maryn, I'm so glad to hear of your positive experience writing for women's magazines, because in the women scienceblogging panel at #scio11 an audience member brought up how some people at NASW discouraged it. Then in the comment thread of the post I wrote about the panel, someone brought up the fact that some of these magazines are really hard to write for, and that has driven freelancers away.Perhaps science journalists just haven't been pitching to the right women's magazines, because Maryn sounds like a lovely example of success!

  7. I've sucessfully placed some science stories with women's magazines, particularly those with a very topical milestone that is making national news or those looking at women scientists' careers.I would love it if women's magazines were open to some of the other articles you mention, particularly debunking that could actually improve the lives of their readers, but I don't think it is terribly likely. With the exception of Good Housekeeping (who had Viv on their books and also had an editor whose degree was in astrophysics) most women's magazines are more interested in profits from advertising and debunking astrology, homeopathy, diet fads or any other pseudoscience would damage their potential revenues / promotions of products.

  8. @Daniel: Glad you agree 🙂 I do know that women could go and pick up a science magazine, but that can be intimidating to someone with no science knowledge. And also, to do so you have to have an existing interest in science. What I would hope is that women who have always thought science is boring because it was taught to them badly at school would read a science article in a women's mag and then be interested enough to go looking for more information other places, such as New Scientist and the many science blogs online.

  9. @Maryn: you're not the only person to respond to this telling me that they already write science for women's magazines. I can only say that that's fantastic and I hope there are many more such examples in the future!

  10. @Pierre: I'm afraid I don't agree on a number of points…"I do think that science is more interesting to men just on the basis of our culture. We are indoctrinated to find how things work interesting in a way young girls are not."Then young girls should be! And if they aren't then they should be allowed the chance as adults to discover how fascinating it can be. Why should they never be encouraged to discover that just because they weren't encouraged to as children? "Also understanding science, really understanding it, takes time. And, again in our society, women have less of that."True, which is why I'd like to see science in the magazines that women read in their spare time already! I'm not suggesting they understand everything enough to get a degree in the subject, just that they get the chance to discover how amazing it can be. That doesn't take that much time, really."Also, on a personal note, science should be accessible but I like having to work to understand it. That's part of the fun. Having read about three books on Einstein I still don't understand relativity really. But I get a little closer to it every time."Again, I'm not suggesting they publish string theory in Cosmo, just that women's magazines include more real science. The greatest joy of science is that moment when you suddenly understand something that previously made your brain melt, all I'm saying is that that sensation should be made available to as many people as possible, and specifically to more women. Of course not everyone will go away and read Einstein, but they might realise that they are clever enough to understand some science and interested enough to find it fascinating. To be honest, I think that the idea that something is only worth knowing if it takes huge effort to understand it is silly, it's personally satisfying, yes, but on the other hand I think science should be made as simple as possible so we can learn what we know as easily as we can and get on with the more exciting business of trying to ask the next questions and find out more!

  11. @Clare: Teen magazines would be a brilliant place to start, the younger someone gets interested, the more chance they have to pursue it! 😀

  12. Wow. I have previously scoffed at the idea of writing about "science for girls" because I thought the whole idea was insulting to our entire gender. Mind you, this feeling was a response to an idea a friend had about writing a textbook geared towards females, so that's quite different than what you're proposing here. Of *course* magazines have specific target audiences, and of *course* any article written for these magazines would have to take into account the fact that no specialized knowledge should be assumed in the audience. It's definitely something to think about, and in fact I already have some ideas brewing that I just might have to submit to some magazines sometime soon! :)I also think it would definitely be great to see women's magazines covering current topics in science news, highlighting them with interviews with female scientists, to inspire more females to not be intimidated by the male dominance in the field. Not that I never felt intimidated in science classes… but then, I'm more intimidated by clothes shopping or having to put on makeup to compete with other girls. ;)Another thought altogether is that maybe there needs to be a whole new magazine, geared towards women who really want to gain understanding in a variety of intellectual fields, full of articles that explain things fully without dumbing down. Oh but wait– most science magazines DO this. Maybe we can only hope that most smart chicks realize that these magazines aren't "geared towards men" after all.

  13. Sorry if my point was misunderstood. I wasn't saying that it shouldn't be done just that it was challenging. Of course girls should be encouraged, I am the dad of a 6 year old who I want to understand everything of the world.And if I gave the impression that I only thought complicated things were worth knowing that is wrong to. I was talking from a personal point of view (which is why I said on a personal note) that I have enjoyed my, thus far fruitless, attempt to understand relativity. Few things have made me happier than Bill Bryson's simple explanation of Newtonian law or plate techtonics. That is the kind of writing I think we can all aspire to.

  14. Follow-up (and sorry it took me a few days, I was traveling): We've put a "writing for women's mags and not being ashamed of it, dammit" session proposal on the wiki for ScienceOnline 2012 in North Carolina next January. Comments, interest, etc. are very welcome! Find the page at:http://scio12.wikispaces.com/Program+Suggestions(and then just click down because that page gets chaotic quickly)

  15. I once pitched a science column to a (now defunct) UK women's magazine called Scarlet (it was quite saucy). I got turned down, although the editor did at least entertain the idea for a bit. I am sick to death of the lack of proper science in the mainstream media full stop, but female-centric media is a particular nadir.

  16. The last time I paged through a women's magazine, I noticed that so many of the advertisements relied a lack of scientific knowledge among the readership. The ads for weight-loss and anti-aging products were especially guilty of this. On the one hand, I wonder if encouraging a more scientifically knowledgeable readership would push away the advertisers — but on the other hand, they could always find ways to reframe the selling of their wares, and overall it would be a good thing to inject quality science writing into women's magazines.I write for a local Planned Parenthood blog (very small scale) and enjoy being able to "sneak" information about science into pieces on sexual health. My most recent post was about the HPV vaccine, which allowed me to talk a little more specifically about what was in the vaccine and how it worked. I was able to engage in a conversation with someone leaning more toward the anti-vax side of the spectrum. It inspired me to continue trying to convey my enthusiasm for science through pieces on sexual/reproductive health.

  17. Thanks Maryn that looks ace, if I can make it to Scio12 I will definitely attend that! :-)@Katarney: Out of interest, was the pitch saucy or the magazine?! @Anna: It would definitely be an issue for advertisers, particularly as they LOVE the psuedo-science in beauty products. That said, there's no reason why they can't rely on real science, at least to a certain extent. It just changes the playing field, which would be welcome as far as I'm concerned. I was discussing the other day with someone why no women's mags will publish a piece trashing astrology, the horoscope hotlines must be an incredible money-spinner, which is a massive shame because women's magazines would be the ideal place to start explaining why astrology is anti-science. Awesome to hear that you've been managing to get science into your blog, the more people learn about it the more they'll get interested 😀

  18. actually, it isn't new. Back in the late 1980's/early 1990's there was this woman scientists who wrote physics in women's magazines. She published in the Australian versions of Cosmo and Elle. I cannot remember her name, but she was the key-note speaker at the very first Communicating Science workshop sponsored by NSF/AAAS in 2007, Lincoln Nebraska. Crazy I can remember all of that but not her name huh?She said she had a helluva time getting publishers to bite, but her articles were popular and she discussed other ways 'womanly arts' could be used to introduce more girls and women interested in science, including knitting and crocheting to create science models of every things from brains to coral reefs. Neat, huh?

  19. Why not? I'm definitely thinking. Thank you for writing, and the comments are great. I'm tired of all the clothes and decorating ideas…science of color anyone? textile science? …

  20. @DNLww: Her name is Margaret Wertheim and she heads something called Institute for Figuring — among other things, it teaches women who crochet how to make advanced topological shapes and learn a bit of math. She's also behind the crocheted coral reefs — one now being displayed in the Smithsonian.Maryn has been very successful writing for women's magazines, although her "beat" is automatically a bit more friendly to that audience (viruses, diseases, health, epidemiology and related areas). It's much harder to get anything about physics or math in such magazines, because people (women especially) have been conditioned to consider those subjects boring or "too hard." And frankly, much of the style in which these topics are generally covered is geared to male readers. Women, I would argue, are VERY interested in science, but they might not be interested in traditional science writing as it has always been done for — let's face it — men. Margaret's amazing ability to bridge that gap is something we should definitely be striving for. 🙂

  21. And, though I know this is not true in all households, women are often more involved in making health-related decisions for their kids. They're often the ones going to the supermarket to buy dinner, taking their child to the doctor for vaccinations etc…Women's magazine are therefore probably one of the best places to discuss the medical issues affecting children as well as adults.

  22. Personally, I'm interested in writing science for a female audience, hence I made this website while on my science journalism MA: http://www.womens-mag-science.com/However, I have not got very far in my pitches to women's magazines. They seem to prefer health 'lite' and glamorous images of sexy female scientists at best. I don't know if that's because I was hoping for too much and setting the bar too high, my pitches were crap (enthusiastic crap, mind) or I'm don't yet have enough good examples or my work or the right contacts to get in there. Another broader and less personal issue is that not all women's magazines are Good Housekeeping and take science seriously – far from it. Ergo, there's less opportunity to walk in Vivienne Parry's footsteps. A bit of a shame.

  23. "Her name is Margaret Wertheim and she heads something called Institute for Figuring — among other things, it teaches women who crochet how to make advanced topological shapes and learn a bit of math. She's also behind the crocheted coral reefs — one now being displayed in the Smithsonian."That's very cool! @Christine, it is certainly the case that not all magazines are Good Housekeeping, in fact I think GH is easily the most committed UK magazine to reporting science accurately. It's a huge shame, there's such a massive market out there and so many women that could be reached, I keep pitching ideas to magazines, but I suspect that I need more experience behind me to get noticed. People like Maryn though are fantastic 😀

  24. It's a shame that since the late 80s when Margaret Wertheim first started we haven't come further forward in terms of the amount of accurate science featured in women's magazines. Long way to go, but the more people that try, the more chance there is of someone succeeding!

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