Gender Trends in Science and Medical Writing

As a medical writer, I’ve noticed that most medical writers I meet are female. A quick Google search using the keywords‚ “freelance medical writer‚” produced seven female and three male writers (approx. 2:1 ratio) from the first 10 eligible results.1 While it is difficult to draw statistically relevant conclusions from such a small sample size, it certainly implies a trend.

The American Medical Writers Association is the leading professional organization for medical communicators, with over 5,500 members from around the world. The ratio of female to male members is 4449:1227 (approx. 4:1), mirroring the trend observed with the Google search.

In short, medical writing is a predominately female profession.

Some may argue that women are simply better writers than men and therefore better able to communicate complex medical and scientific ideas. But what about renowned male writers like Carl Zimmer and Gary Taubes?

It is possible that different gender trends exist in different subgroups within the medical/science writing community based on expertise (for example, science vs. medical vs. technical writers), target audience (writing for physicians vs. scientists vs. the public) or kind of degree held by the writer (PhD vs. MD).

Another argument is that many women pursue science/medical writing because they drop out or are pushed out of academia. It is no secret that most scientists in the upper echelons of academia are male, and much has been written about the female plight in academia.

Some women, like Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, have managed to remain in academia and have a successful science writing career. Other women have chosen one over the other.

Gunjan Sinha, an award-winning female medical writer based in Berlin, suggests that two main reasons why women scientists drop out of academia to pursue alternative careers (like medical writing) are:

  1. They choose family over career; and
  2. The proverbial glass ceiling—the institutional barriers that impede their advancement in academia.

I would be interested to know what others think are the reasons why more women choose to communicate about science and medicine (professionally) while more men seem to choose the practical aspects of science and medicine (professionally).

Karen Ventii, PhD is a medical writer based in Atlanta. She formerly blogged at Science to Life.

  1. Inclusion criteria: individuals (not part of an agency) whose websites clearly define them as a “medical” writer. []

Tags: , ,

7 Responses to “Gender Trends in Science and Medical Writing”

  1. March 10th, 2009 at 10:36 am

    Betul says:

    Great post, Karen. I have a quick theory. I think medical writing sorts of jobs require individual power and capability. Therefore if you are talented and out there, then you are really out there, people will accept you for being a good writer. They will read you (you don’t even need to use your real name!), they will follow what you write and respect you (your brains, rather than your look or the tone of your voice)

    However if you try to pursue a job in the “men-dominant world” like academia, imagine all the attacks and obstacles you would face, as a woman. It is really hard for us to be a part of the club when men is in charge for good. As you also suggest, in the cases of pursuing a career that requires more individual success (like medical writing – or even art?) women do better.

    Therefore I think rather than women being really better in communications than men, to me the main causes are the lack of opportunities and equity in the other fields that women scientists could also lead.

  2. March 10th, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Elizabeth Cline says:

    Interesting subject.
    The gender disparity among medical writers is quite simple: women are the main consumers of health care and are vastly more interested in issues of health than men, as a result of the targeting of women by the health care industry and maybe because of the lack of stigma women enjoy of being able to care about their bodies and issues of health without having to feel weak or unmanly. Women are the gatekeepers of their own health and their family’s health. We don’t have to be cajoled into going to the doctor like men do, so of course we’re the ones who are going to be more comfortable writing about medical issues.

  3. March 10th, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Nathan Myers says:

    Ms. Cline makes an excellent point, but I would place the selection on the opposite side: women, as primary consumers of medical writing, given a choice, prefer to read what women write. This creates the ready demand for women willing and able write authoritatively about medical matters.

  4. March 10th, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Carl Zimmer says:

    Based on my non-scientific familiarity with a number of science writers, I’d wager that there’s a slight male-female imbalance among science writers that mirrors the slight male-female imbalance in the fields they cover. Physics, technology, math: more male writers. Medicine, psychology, biology: more female writers.

    At any rate, it’s a hypothesis that could be tested.

    Of course, I wrote about biology, so I must be one of the exceptions that prove the rule….

  5. March 10th, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Some of my best friends are excellent male writers, and I don’t want to offend them or anything, but as someone who reads a LOT of writing written by a LOT of people, I can tell you this: Out of the gate, the average female is a better writer than the average male, measured a lot of different ways.

    Across diverse societies, men communicate in public in competitive ways. A traditional Highland PNP headman will gain power (and numbers of wives and pigs owed to him and everything) with his oratory. American male politicians have little to offer behyond their oratory, in most cases (have you ever actually sat down and had a conversation with your state senator????? Wow.) But this is not because communication is easy for men or because they are good at it. It is because it is hard for them and they are bad at it. The Handicap Principle. (Or, in the case of a male administrator in edumication who is not a good communicator, The Handicapped Principal.)

  6. March 13th, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Karen Ventii says:

    Great Insights so far!

    Carl, I agree. Your hypothesis could (and should) be tested!

    It may reveal some new and unexpected trends!

  7. April 4th, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Maggie says:

    Great post, Karen.
    I’m another female science and health writer, but I don’t feel like I made the choice to write about science–as opposed to doing science–because I was choosing family over career (if anything, as a freelancer, this is going to be every bit as complicated for me as it would be if I had a salary job that required long hours) OR because I was thinking about the glass ceiling in academia or industry.

    I made that decision when I was a sophomore in college. (At least, the decision to focus on journalism as a career, rather than on my other major in anthropology….deciding to write specifically about science happened later.) There were three major reasons:
    First, my background. My father is an art professor and I don’t have any family in the sciences, so I was thinking of science in terms of only academia or being a doctor. And I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher (and hated dealing with professors who clearly were just there for the research).
    Second, I honestly felt like I was better at writing than at academic research.
    Third, I couldn’t get calculus–at least not well enough to feel like I wasn’t too stupid to be a scientist–and figured I couldn’t do anything on the science track without being good at that.

    I think that I might have made a different decision if I had known more about what options were out there, and if I had been given as much encouragement by teachers in grade-through-high school about my interest in science, as I got for my interest in English and writing. It’s that later bit where I think the unconscious sexism might come into play. My grades were pretty much the same in both all through school, but at 19, I thought of myself as being really good at writing, not science. In my experience, when a girl is getting A’s in both and is excited about both science and English/writing, what she hears is, “Oh, you’re going to make a great writer. Have you thought about a career in writing?” Not, “Hey, you should think about working in a lab someday.”

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline