Women writing popular science books

It seems to be a week for asking: Why aren’t there more women …

  • on the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books shortlist?
  • entrepreneurs?
  • leaving comments on VC (venture capital) blogs?

The first question was asked by Jo Marchant in her Oct. 4, 2011 posting on the Guardian Science Blogs. From the posting,

I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed by the shortlist, announced last week, for the 2011 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. From Alex Bellos’s mathematical adventures to Sam Kean’s poetic tour of the chemical elements, this is an inspiring collection of well-deserving books. But, yet again, all the authors are men.

This made me wonder how many women have been shortlisted for this prestigious prize since it was established in 1988. A quick glance at the society’s website reveals that of 144 shortlisted books – six each year over 24 years – just nine were by women, with two others that had a woman as second author, including a husband-wife team. Out of these female authors, only one has won (the husband-wife team).

Much comes down to the individual tastes of the judges each year. But surely the overall statistics – only around 5% of shortlisted books are by female authors, with just one shortlisted woman in the last five years (me, since you ask) – show that there is a problem to be addressed here.

Marchant suggests that at least part of the problem lies in the fact that most science books are authored by men and so the lists reflect that reality. She does suggest that perhaps the judges could seek out books by women and by various ethnic minorities, which are also under-represented, instead of passively choosing from the male-dominated lists presented to them.

Mark Suster writing for Fast Company asked the question about women entrepreneurs in his Oct. 4, 2011 posting,

I’m often asked the question about why there aren’t more women who are entrepreneurs. On my blog I’ve been hesitant to take the topic head on. Somehow it seems kind of strange for a man to answer this question that obviously comes from a man’s point of view.

The truth is I have been thinking a lot about the topic, I just haven’t been writing about it. And when asked about the topic, I definitely don’t shy away from the topic as you can see in this 8-minute YouTube interview that Pemo Theodore asked me to do on the subject of Women in Entrepreneurship.

My inspiration to become an entrepreneur came from my mom, not my dad. She was the dominant figure in my family and was both an entrepreneur and a community leader. She opened a bakery and a restaurant. She was president of the UJA (United Jewish Appeal). She bought our first computer – an IBM XT with a 10MB hard drive – in order to do her books electronically. It’s how I learned to build spreadsheets. She encouraged me to get a job when I was 14. She encouraged me to take acting classes as a child, which gave me confidence as a public speaker.

I love my dad equally, of course. But he was a doctor and a long-distance runner and cared little about business.

So the role is [sic] a strong woman leader has always been a comfortable idea for me.

Even more interesting is that at GRP Partners (the VC firm where I’m a partner) our two most successful returns from our previous fund [which is ranked as the top performing fund in the country for its 2000 vintage according to Prequin] were both run by women!

But then the truth sets in. My guess is that probably only 2-3 out of every hundred pitches I receive are from women. This certainly isn’t anything conscious on my side. It’s just the facts.

I’m a little confused by Suster’s comment about receiving “only 2-3 out of every hundred pitches” followed by the conclusion that consciousness on his side is required but he has an interesting perspective although he does not venture any answers.

Suster also comments on a recent posting by Tara Tiger Brown where she asked the question about women and venture capital blogs. From her Sept. 22, 2011 posting on her Tara the Tiger blog,

For a long time we’ve all been hearing women in tech complain about being left out of the conversation, yet blog posts are the easiest way to participate. Anybody can comment on a blog post. We know there are women in tech and we know there are women entrepreneurs, so, why aren’t more women commenting on these VC’s posts?

The comments section of any blog post is just as valuable, if not more so, than the actual post. That’s where the real conversation is, and any decent blogger will contribute to that conversation well past the point of hitting publish. These VCs are the guys that give out the money to startups, so people listen to them. The question is, why are mostly men replying back to them?

I did a little Googling and came across the post “The Top 20 VC Power Bloggers of 2010” and decided to put my math skills to the test. I picked out the top VCs from their list that allow for comments (all men, BTW), and their most recent 5 posts (I didn’t include guest posters) and the number of comments by women divided by the number of total comments. If someone was anonymous, I didn’t count them as a woman (would be interesting to know if they are though).

Not surprisingly, hardly any of the comments were by women. It was easily observable that out of all the VC’s blog posts, more women comment on Fred Wilson’s blog but usually the same 3 or 4 women.

She goes on to list some open questions and at this point has gotten over a dozen comments from women about why they do and don’t comment on VC blogs.

I don’t have a definitive answer for women why do or don’t do things so I was never able to answer a boss at a technical company that I worked for who used to ask why women didn’t like his and his partners’ company? Personally, I always thought he was asking the wrong question. I would have rephrased it this way, why doesn’t our company like women? In short, were there systemic and personal issues and or barriers within the company that discouraged women?

As you can see from this posting, women are still under-represented in many situations and I think it’s going to take a variety of strategies, much discussion, and a willingness to keep asking the questions before more progress is achieved.

BTW, I read Sam Kean’s book (mentioned in Marchant’s posting as one of this year’s shortlisted books) about the periodic table of elements and was quite charmed until about 2/3 through the book when he seemed to lose focus. I’m surprised it made the shortlist.

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