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Why do male climate experts hog the media spotlight?

While women are more likely to be affected by extreme weather, it's men who are largely dominating the discussion of climate change in the media.

That's according to Media Matters for America, which found that more than 85 percent of those quoted in the media about climate change are men.

The nonprofit organization discovered this startling disparity when it reviewed two of its past analyses.

The most recent one, which looked at print and television coverage of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, revealed that women made up less than 15 percent of interviewees. The other examined broadcast coverage of climate change and exposed a similar figure: Less than 14 percent of those quoted on Sunday and nightly news shows in 2013 were women.

According to Shauna Theel, Media Matters' climate and energy program director, The Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal failed to quote even one woman as part of their coverage on the IPCC's Working Group II and III.

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"It's a much starker disparity than we've found on other subjects," she said.

Don't call them 'babe'

Theel speculated that this dramatic gender gap could be due in part to the sexist attacks that are often launched against female climate scientists who step into the media spotlight.

Katherine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech University climate scientist, said more than 90 percent of the harassing emails she receives are from men and usually contain some type of gender discrimination along the lines of "get back in the kitchen" (ClimateWire, Jan. 22)

One of the most notorious culprits behind these attacks is conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who has, on more than one occasion, referred to a female climate scientist -- Hayhoe included -- as "babe."

"When you know you're going to be attacked for your gender or your looks rather than your argument or credentials, you may shy away from media appearances," Theel said.

But Julie Brigham-Grette, a professor of geoscience at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, thinks the gap reflects a much deeper phenomenon: the overarching bias against women in science. She said it's particularly noticeable in academia, at least in the atmospheric and Earth sciences.

"Women in the full professorship leadership role have not reached parity in our classrooms or graduate programs," she said. "There is still a glass ceiling out there that is preventing women from getting into these visible roles."

In fact, a 2012 Yale University study found that science professors at American universities typically view female undergraduates as less competent than their male counterparts, regardless of whether or not they have the same skills and accomplishments. As a result, it noted, the professors were more willing to offer a higher starting salary and additional career mentoring to their male students.

Perhaps that is why, as Hayhoe pointed out, men are more likely to reach a higher pinnacle in their scientific careers than women.

"The underrepresentation of women reflected in the media is reflective of the general population of women in the field," she said. "Typically, it's the senior scientists who have gotten to the point in their career where they are willing and able to invest in media and communication and are viewed as credible sources. And the sad truth is there simply are not a lot of women at that stage."

Breaking 'the cycle'

The disparity, however, reaches far beyond the obvious gender injustice.

Theel's biggest concern is that a lack of women in the media's discussion on climate change, whether scientists, policymakers or organizational heads, may give young women and girls the wrong impression about their ability to influence the debate.

"When they see a topic dominated by men, they might not think of it as their topic," she said. "In part, it's institutional discrimination that's reflected in the media, but the media is continuing the cycle of discrimination."

One of the most immediate ways to break this cycle, said Theel, lies in the hands of reporters, who could make a concentrated effort to reach out to female climate scientists.

But, despite the wide gap, there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel -- one that may arrive organically with time. According to Hayhoe, the percentage of women entering the field is much higher than it was 10 or even 15 years ago.

"In another 10 or 15 years, when those women have had a chance to get a bit of time under their collective belts, I think you will see those numbers [of women quoted in the media] starting to change," she said.

Twitter: @ElspethDehnert | Email: edehnert@eenews.net

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