My open letter to Radiolabs

May 26, 2012

Dear wonderful staff at Radiolabs,
I have a scientific, intellectual and social challenge for you.
First let me thank you for your work. I listen to your podcasts all the time. I’ve listened to every full episode and all the Shorts. I am completely inspired. I often drive with tears streaming down my face as I am so deeply moved by the stories.
Sometimes I find myself thinking about ways I could change my job so I could do what you do, somehow, never mind my lack of expertise. In fact, I’m convinced that if I had listed to Radiolab 20 years it might have changed my study and career choices.
Ok, enough gushing. Back to the challenge.
I should explain that I am very aware of gender imbalances in the world. It’s more than a hobby of mine. I see the world through the lens of constant gender analysis. I’m sharing my analysis with you because I’ve heard you invite comment and encourage us, your listeners, to consider how we can contribute to your show. Plus today I listened to Robert encourage the Caltech graduates to tell stories and inspire others to care about science.
That’s why I’m writing to you, because I believe my challenge will help your show inspire more people and to inspire people on deeper levels.
I’m going to share some of my observations with regard to gender dynamics in your show. These are important for three reasons.
Firstly, because you have an amazing influence to help inspire future female scientists.  Just as I might have chosen a more scientific career from the start and am now considering ways to engage in research, your female listeners might choose a path of science if they can imagine themselves as scientists. This act of imagining themselves as scientists is more likely to happen if they can hear from other women who are scientists. You see, as a woman, if all I hear is male voices and male stories, I am not automatically able to identify with those men. But if you introduce me to a woman’s voice and experience, a small voice within whispers: ‘That could be me. I could do that’.
Secondly, you run the risk of alienating your female audience as, I, on occasion have felt alienated. If alienated is too strong a word, I would say that as a woman, there are times when I feel ignored or invisible, that the stories of women and their voices are not seen as important as those of men.
Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, you have a opportunity (I would go as far to call it a duty) to educate your male audience members. You have the opportunity to help debunk stereotypes, celebrate contributions made by women and highlight the absolute equal capabilities of women.
You already work hard to humanise your subjects (The Turing Problem was fantastic), please consider the gender issue as well.
In a nutshell, I think the female voice and experience is largely missing from your show.
I understand that science as a field is historically dominated by men, but that is why I call this a challenge. I haven’t done a rigorous analysis of your broadcasts, (although I’ve been tempted because I wonder if it’s been improving over time) but I’ve been paying close attention since I first noticed this absence of female voices. Here are the different ways I’ve noticed it.
1. The ubiquitous male voice. This is the most obvious point. When I’ve listen to the show, it appears to me that there are literally more male voice than female voices. Obviously the two hosts are male (Jad and Robert) but most of your guests are male too. Your regular experts certainly are male. (Jonah Lehrer, Bob Sapolsky, Oliver Sachs). I think there are one or two women you’ve referenced more than once (Mary Roach, for example), but she has certainly had much less air time than these male experts. I’m guessing here but I reckon if you literally counted the minutes of male voices and the minutes of female voice the audience hears, you might end up with an 85/15 split. Again, just to reiterate, I haven’t actually counted the minutes but this is the impression I get. Some shows, you’re lucky if you hear a woman’s voice once. (There are other shows where women are featured more often like ‘Contact’ but they are the exception.)
2. Men as story-teller. I always love hearing the stories which were researched and created by female journalists and producers, but again, these don’t appear to be as often as they should be. It appears that the people researching, writing and producing your shows are usually men which obviously impacts on the perspective they bring. (I’m including the journalists, writers and producers in this category.) The story-teller is the person who shapes the story, who chooses which elements are included or omitted. It’s a powerful role. When your storytellers (researchers/producers/hosts/guests) are men the audience hears a mono-gendered view of the stories. I often find myself talking outloud, asking you questions which I think would be interesting and relevant from a female perspective. How do these topics impact on women? Are the results of the experiments the same for women? How were women involved? Not involved? Why? (I visited your website today by the way and saw that 3 out of 9 of your staff listed are women which is great.)
3. Men as the main subject. It seems to me that when you find people to tell stories about, they also tend to be men. There are some notable exceptions, like Ella in Detective Stories, Annie Taylor and Janis in the Lucy episode.  The split is probably less exaggerated (again guessing here) maybe this time it’s a 70/30 split, but it’s definitely not 50/50. This means the stories you tell, tend to be those that happen to men. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to hear the story of Annie Taylor, the first person who went over Niagra falls in a barrel, or of Julie Moss the Ironman competitor. (I feel compelled to point out that Julie was a competitor in the Iron-MAN competition). I felt so proud that woman had achieved such amazing physical feats.
4. Male oriented topics. I’m sure I can articulate this one fully, but sometimes your stories could be contexualised in a more gender-neutral way. For example, instead of a show entirely about sperm, how about a more gender-neutral term like ‘fertility’? Or if you are going to have one about sperm, how about following it up with something in a gender-complimentary way, like ‘menstruation’? A quick scan of all the topics reveals that usually the topics are pretty neutral on the surface, but it can be more subtle than just the title of the segment. This point is closely related to the point above, the male analysis.
 5. Male-oriented language. Sometimes the language used on the show is pretty gendered. Even when you anthropomorphise inanimate objects, it tends to be male. (Mr. Corporation for Public Broadcasting?). Fictitious people invented to illustrate points are usually men and there have even been a couple of instances of language that objectifies women. The example that comes to mind is the guest who commented that his friend, when he stumbled, (he was the guy who had to consciously think about walking) was probably distracted by thinking of what he would like to ‘do to’ the woman he walked past. That’s pretty creepy folks.
I think that in today’s world this is little reason for anything less than a full effort for full gender equality, even though it may be difficult to achieve. Science has historically been dominated by men, but you don’t just tell stories about and with scientists.You draw on writers and journalists. You’re based in New York, you have access to so  many Universities of brilliant women.
Please involve women more. In every way.
I hope this email stimulates you to think about your shows in a different way. I think you’re great, Radiolab, but in this regard, I think you could do better.

Kind regards,

Karin Brown
(New Zealand)

PS – I will be posting this as an open letter on my blog http://www.notbigondignity.wordpress.com. I’ll of course add any response I receive from you.

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