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#PlutoFlyby Diversity

July 16, 2015

In case you hadn’t noticed…

NASA’s New Horizons mission released their first pictures yesterday from the #PlutoFlyby, and they were AMAZING! The image of the large moon Charon showed a surprising sparsity of craters and a diverse landscape that includes a giant canyon about 5 miles deep. The first close-up image of Pluto, an area on the edge of the “heart” (now “Tombaugh Regio”) showed zero impact craters, and huge mountains! These small bodies are somehow geologically active, despite having no tidal heating. So exciting! Even better images will start coming in tomorrow and throughout the coming months. I can’t wait!!

But let’s take a moment to talk about the other kind of diversity.

Last night I was watching the Science Channel’s much-promoted “Direct From Pluto” program. As a science media professional, I try to keep up with the depiction of space science in the media. At that point, I had already watched the National Geographic Channel’s “Mission Pluto”, part of NOVA’s “Chasing Pluto” (sorry I missed the first half!), and of course all the live broadcasts from NASA TV. So unfortunately for the Science Channel, none of the Pluto information was new to me anymore, and I found my thoughts focusing on other aspects besides the Pluto news.

One category of thoughts included, “Boy they’re spending a lot of time on the planet debate. Oy, I don’t understand all these scientists who think Pluto needs to be a planet. ‘Interesting’ does not ‘prove’ Pluto is a planet; ‘interesting’ is not a qualification for a planet, are you kidding me? My favorite bodies in the solar system (Io, Europa, Titan) are all non-planets, and much larger than Pluto by the way! They’re calling Pluto the ninth of the original planets? What about Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta, which were planets for 50 years?! There’s nothing wrong with being a dwarf planet! You don’t need to be a primary planet to be a super interesting object worthy of exploration!” Etc.

And then another category of thoughts started: “There sure are a lot of white men in this show. … No seriously, the proportion of white men seems way high.”

I guesstimated that this show was 95% white men, 5% white women, 0% minorities, which I figured might be an exaggeration. Out of curiosity, I went back and actually added up the amount of time women were speaking in the show. 8% of the ~45-minute-long show was women speaking. So my guesstimate really wasn’t much of an exaggeration! And indeed 0% minorities (anyone obviously non-white-looking.)

Gender issues and diversity issues are not favorite topics of mine. Usually I prefer to just operate under the assumption that everyone’s equal. I figure it’s kind of hard to feel like everyone’s equal if you’re constantly talking about how people are treated unequally. Plus, I actually didn’t use to see much for gender issues in STEM because of the people I happened to work with in my first few years in space science. The cosmochemistry research group I joined in undergrad under a NASA grant was a majority women, and so were the majority of my co-workers at my first two internships with the Smithsonian. But now working in science media, which combines two white-male-dominated industries and creates the visible face of STEM, I’m forced to encounter these representation issues.

The women of the New Horizons team are being well-publicized, people in the APL auditorium chanted Alice Bowman’s name (New Horizon’s Mission Operations Manager), and we’re celebrating the relative abundance of women on the team – 25%. Now, 25% doesn’t seem very abundant to me, but apparently the percentages used to be quite a bit lower on older NASA missions, so I’m happy for the increase.

So 25% of the New Horizons team is women. And 8% of the Science Channel’s “Direct from Pluto” program was women. Let me repeat that – 25% reality, 8% represented. When I mentioned the over-abundance of white men on Twitter, the Science Channel was quick to point out and congratulate Alice Bowman. I’m sorry it’s an uncomfortable fact, Science Channel, but take a look, your program, probably unconsciously, really did waaaay underrepresent women. (And of course, lacked any representation of minorities.)

I’m guessing National Geographic’s and NOVA’s specials probably weren’t much better in terms of representation. I’d have to go back and look.

I definitely do understand the struggle of representing a diversity of people. There are times when I’m working on a video at Goddard and there are literally no non-white-men to be found who can speak on that particular story. I’ve commiserated on this struggle with other science program producers. It can be frustrating!

But allow me to let you in on something about the networks that broadcast these types of programs – in general, women and minorities are not part of their targeted demographic. A development director at the National Geographic Channel told me a few months ago that for their channel, they’re aiming their content toward their typical viewers, middle-aged men in middle-America. (“White” is implied.) I don’t know if development directors at other networks would say something similar, but this Comcast web page for advertisers states that the Science Channel’s viewership is 65% male with a median age of 47. And you can bet that any network is going to want content that resonates with its “typical viewer”.

When science television programs are created by white men for white men, is it any wonder that we get stuck in that rut?

One tactic I try to compensate for the overwhelming white male representation in the videos I produce is to put myself in as a host – so even if everyone else are guys, at least there’s this one female. (And of course it’s partly for, cough, selfish reasons because I love being on camera talking about space.)

With only a quarter of the New Horizons team being women, having a female host seems like an easy thing for the science TV networks to do to balance things out a little bit. And there is no shortage to choose from.

In the internet world – now, this may be heavily biased by whom I’ve chosen to follow on Twitter – it seems like most of my Pluto news and content has been coming from women. Amy Shira Teitel has been hosting the “Pluto in a Minute” videos for New Horizons; Dianna Cowern aka The Physics Girl made this awesome Pluto overview; Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society has been furiously tweeting, reporting, and analyzing Pluto content; and Twitter queens such as Katie Mack and Sarah Hörst have been providing novels of 140-character commentary. Emily Calandrelli (host of Xploration Outer Space) could have been another Pluto TV host option, and of course there’s always (cough cough) me (cough).

I do feel like, generally speaking, representation and treatment of women and minorities has improved over the last few decades. Last week, this article came out about an upcoming movie and book telling the story of a group of black women in the 1960s space race who were NASA’s mathematicians (or “colored computers” as they were then called.) There are a LOT of people truly interested in these types of stories and characters! The one complaint the article’s author Tambay Obenson briefly mentions is that the film is being made by – you guessed it – white men.

Yes, the media production industry is also dominated by white men, unfortunately. But I do applaud those who make the effort to create stories about other types of people.

And that brings me to my final point – what are we to do?

A guy can’t help being a guy any more than I can help being white. And we certainly don’t appreciate white men any less; the Phil Plaits and the Bill Nyes and Jason Silvas of the world, you’re awesome and we love you! My white male media producer friends, you are great people and amazing at your jobs.

I think us science media creators, and other media creators as well, need to keep making a continuous conscious effort to include more diverse representation. It’s easy to just accept the solely white male talent and characters someone provides for you and not push for other options, but we do need to push. We do need to say, however uncomfortable it may be, “hey, are there any women or minorities who could also tell this story?” Every time. It won’t work every time, but diverse representation needs to constantly be on our minds. Because we are, quite literally, responsible for the public face of STEM. When little girls or young minorities watch TV or go to the movies and see 90+% white men as scientists and engineers, or super heros, action stars, etc, it is much harder for them to see themselves in those roles. And it’s up to us to change that.

And to those who might purposefully or semi-purposefully make your content primarily white men in order to appeal to your target middle-aged white male demographic because that’s who you think should be watching science TV or that’s who you think will get you the highest ratings and advertising revenue… shame on you.

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