26 Apr 2019

A scientist? Must be a man!

“The professor was introduced to the findings of a new study by its author and two contributing researchers.” There are four people in this sentence and many journalists in the Balkans would assume there are four men -- even if they were all women.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
A scientist? Must be a man! - NewsMavens
Scientists, PixaBay

When a 2015 study found some common genetic markers in people who smoke but live to very old age, it became an instant hit in the media across the Balkans, where smokers are roughly one third of the population. After The Daily Mail wrote about the study, headlines like “Smokers who live to be a hundred have THIS ONE THING IN COMMON!” soon popped up all over the clickbait websites in the region. Major media outlets also published the news, which continues to be “recycled” to this day (the latest was published a few weeks ago).

The study’s lead author, Morgan Levine, was quoted by the Mail and one of the quotes made it into articles published in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia. There was, however, one major difference in how they framed it.


An incomplete list of portals which published the story in the past four years includes Fokus, Depo, Vijesti, Ekskluziva, N1, Slobodna Bosna, Nezavisne novine (twice), RTRS, Buka, Radio Sarajevo, Source, Faktor, Alternativna televizija, Info Bijeljina, Hayat, Novi (twice), 072 Info, TVBN,  Poskok, Cazin, Dnevnik, RTV7 and Bljesak (twice) from Bosnia; Informer (twice), Kurir (twice), B92, Vesti, 021, Beograd (twice), Espreso, Zabavne strane, Srpski list from Serbia; Express, Šibenski portal, Novi svjetski poredak, Antena Zadar, Šibenik in, Dug život from Croatia; Markukule, Samo zdravje from Macedonia; Vijesti, Kodex from Montenegro.

Most of them simply copied the first translation, some added a few longevity trivia, and all kept this quote of Morgan Levine:

A screenshot of the first translation of Daily Mail’s article on Bosnian website Fokus.

In most Slavic languages, past tense verbs have a grammatical gender, so you can communicate “she said” or “he said” in just one word. That’s also the case with BHS (short for Bosnian / Croatian / Montenegran / Serbian). Rekla means that the person who did the talking was a woman. Rekao signifies male gender -- this was the word used to quote Levine in all the articles listed above.

So, according to all these media, “scientist Morgan Levine” is a man.


While the name “Morgan” is given to both men and women, the Mail’s article was not ambiguous about the gender of Morgan Levine who is, in fact, a woman. “She” and “Ms” were right there to be read and used in translations. Instead, she became a man. And there was more where that came from.

Professions and titles are also gendered in BHS, the male form usually ends with a consonant and the female with a vowel. However, many insist on using only the male gender, claiming it to be the “neutral form” applicable to all. It’s therefore not uncommon for a woman scientist to be referred to as naučnik instead of naučnica, just as a woman prime minister can appear as premijer rather than premijerka.

The underlying argument is the preservation of language and its protection from “feminist nonsense”; but this alleged purism actually frequently leads to the butchering of proper grammar (defying grammatical congruence in examples like “rekla je premijer”, where the verb in the female gender is used with a male noun). This is particularly noticable when high skilled professions and high ranking positions -- all of which used to be exclusively male prerogatives -- are in question. Those who bravely “defend the language” from premijerka or naučnica are never bothered by čistačica or spremačica (a cleaning lady).

This practice further erases women scientists from the public discourse. In this example, the two women who authored the study were referred to as “American scientists” in the plural for male gender (američki naučnici) rather than the correct female form (američke naučnice). Some of the media which correctly presented Levine’s gender -- and those were few and far between -- also used the baffling “autor je rekla” (the "female" author said) to quote her. And all of them kept the male plural naučnici (or znanstvenici) for “scientists”, thus implicitly changing the gender of the study’s other author, Eileen M. Crimmins.

In this example, unconscious gender bias and local media’s usual bad practices of superficial reading and mindless copy/pasting, trumped the fact that Levine’s gender was spelled out in the original article. As a result, millions of people in the region have read, year after year, about a study authored by two women as if it was a research conducted by an unknown number of men under the leadership of a male scientist.



This is not an isolated case. In fact, a dive into the “science” and “health” sections of local websites shows that foreign scientists whose names are not obviously female are continuously perceived and presented as men by some of these outlets. Add to that the unwillingness to do even a basic Google search before publishing, and you get scores of women in STEM who appear as men to the Balkan audiences.  

One of the media outlets where this happens rather regularly is Klix, one of the most visited portals in Bosnia (and beyond). A few months ago, their article about blood sugar research, originally published by 24 Health, implicitly presented the two female authors, Su Su Maw and Chiyori Haga, as male researchers (istraživači) and explicitly changed the former’s gender while paraphrasing her statement.

Another one changed the gender of Megu Baden, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard and the lead author of a study on the benefits of a plant-based diet. As in previous cases, the news was then republished without a correction on other websites (Savjetnici, Radio Kameleon, Novi Radio Bihać, Velkaton, Moj Pedijatar, Dnevno, etc.).

Some of these articles have a rather limited reach - mostly those with low “clickbait potential” (unlike the comforting claim that you may smoke and live to be a hundred). This was the case with the article Number of exoplanets soon to reach 4000, where French astronomer Françoise Roques was the one who received the linguistic “gender reassignment”. Since astrophysics is clearly not something to attract huge attention of tabloids, this was reposted by only a few smaller outlets (Visoko, Vijest, 021).

On the other hand, the far more flashy news about “toxic vegetables” did explode on local media in a way similar to that of “centenarian smokers”. It came from an organization called Environmental Working Group (EWG), which publishes annual lists of produce with the most/least amount of pesticide found. Given that kale has long been hailed as one of the supposed “superfoods”, the English-language media have widely reported that it had now appeared on EWG’s “Dirty dozen” list. Many of those reports didn’t use any pronouns when quoting the list’s lead author Alexis Temkin. But some did (like the one from Time magazine), so it would take a minute-long online search to establish that dr. Temkin is a woman.

Regardless, Klix, Cazin, Nezavisne novine, Bljesak, Večernji list,Vijesti, RT Vojvodine, Politika, Espreso, Happy TV, Yu Mama, Samo zdravje, Plus info and countless anonymous portals who leech off of other’s materials, have repeatedly presented her as a man. Temkin also appeared as a man in some Ukranian sources (with “сказал” instead of “сказала”), so it’s possible that this phenomenon surpasses the borders of Balkan countries and languages. And it is surely not limited to examples presented in this text.

There is a famous “surgeon riddle” which is apparently a hard solve for most because of implicit gender bias related to careers in science and medicine. Researchers from Boston University tried it on a few hundred people and found that only 14% thought of the possibility that the doctor is a woman (and succeeded in solving the riddle). A casual street survey by the TV show “Good Morning America” had a similar outcome.

A test of unconscious gender bias, developed by Harvard’s “Project implicit”, was taken by almost 850,000 people from 2005 to 2015. The scores suggest that 75% of them associate “male” with career and “female” with family. The opposite is true for only 9% (the rest have no automatic preference either way).


Implicit bias is unintentional. And if most people unconsciously associate words like doctor, scientist, expert and researcher with men, then it is likely that people who work in the media will as well. But while implicit bias is the most likely reason for the phenomenon of women experts being “turned into men”, it’s certainly not an excuse for media professionals.

If your job is to present people with accurate information, you need to get your facts straight before you publish them. Failing to do so allows your preconcieved notions built upon implicit biological determinism to become explicit falsehoods. This contributes to the low visibility of women in STEM fields and, in turn, strenghtens that same implicit bias in the readers presented with such disinformation.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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