I’m a white male with glasses and thinning hair. In other words, I’m what nearly every scientist looks like, according to television and the movies (though I don’t think I’m as generically nerdy in appearance as the fictional representations usually are). Yes, a few scientists in the media break some of the stereotypes, but if you look for a typical scientist on TV, you expect them to be white, male, lab-coat-wearing, and usually middle-aged or older.
Admittedly, research science is still somewhat male-dominated, and though the gender balance is improving across the board, some areas are doing better than others. However, it’s telling that the public face of science in mainstream media is almost exclusively male; the spokesmen are often good (and I would say the overall quality has improved over time), but how many shows are hosted by female scientists or science writers? Women are severely underrepresented, and our culture is all the poorer for that.
I was looking over the list of science writers I’m regularly in touch with, and over half of them are women. They may not all be TV personality material (and I certainly ain’t), but some of them would be really good at it, and all of them are excellent at what they do — certainly better than several blowhard male personalities that seem to be everywhere and who perpetuate the “arrogant male scientist” stereotype oh so well.
So let me echo Carin Bondar, scientist and Scientific American blogger in calling for TV executives to hire more women hosts and for women to go ahead and apply for hosting positions that are supposed to be for men only. (That very idea is bizarre to me.) May I add too that “TV host” need not mean “21 with long skinny legs”, either: Neil deGrasse Tyson is a handsome chap, don’t get me wrong, but he didn’t get his position by being a supermodel. (Oh, those mental images.) TV is the most superficial of superficial media, yet we don’t demand male hosts be ideal beauties in the most limited sense, or else we never would have gotten Carl Sagan (much less Phillip Morrison!).
Some scientists look like me, and maybe a majority do in America — but that’s no excuse, because not everyone does look like me. First and foremost, women scientists are scientists: not representatives of a group, but fellow workers in one of the greatest human endeavors. Let TV show that.