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Public editor: On International Women’s Day, a look at the impact of language

Jennifer Gardy is photographed inside the TB Control Clinic located at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, Feb. 22, 2013. Equally at home in the lab or on TV, genome researcher Jennifer Gardy makes science understandable.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

If you were a world-class epidemiologist, heading a genome research lab and had your research published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, how would you want to be described? For your brains and accomplishments or your looks? Here's another question for you: What gender and age do you think this world-class scientist is, given these descriptors: sexy, super smart babe, "adorkable", a petite brunette with high cheekbones and a kittenish voice to match?

Okay, that was too easy. Dr. Jennifer Gardy is 33 and was profiled by The Globe in Monday's paper as part of a series on women in science. There was one letter to the editor this week from Lori West, a professor of pediatrics, surgery and immunology at the University of Alberta, who noted that Globe columnist Naomi Wolf "offers insightful comments on issues that continue to impair the advancement of women. So what an ironic surprise that Anne Casselman finds it necessary in her article on women in science to include the description of a successful young scientist as a 'petite brunette with high cheekbones ... and a kittenish voice.' How very helpful!"

It's hard for me to believe that in 2013, "kittenish voice" is used to describe a scientist.

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Steve Tustin, senior editor of The Globe's custom content department and manager of the women in science series, said the story was conceived to focus on the communications savvy of a new generation of Canadian Gen Y women scientists, focusing on one of its most visible and prolific spokespersons – Dr. Gardy.

He points out that the story says she has been recognized by Esquire as a "semi-famous (in Canada, anyway), sexy, supersmart babe." That's Esquire's description. He also said Dr. Gardy calls herself "adorkable."

"Given her style as a celebrity communicator, and how she has been previously described and profiled, I think we were acting properly, indeed journalistically responsibly and correctly, to describe for the readers how she comes across publicly in all forms of media, television included. In other words, her looks and style are indeed very relevant to aid the readers understanding of her approach, and perhaps the 'Gen Y approach,' to explaining/selling science…," Mr. Tustin said.

"Given the same context I would take exactly the same descriptive approach with a celebrity male scientist (i.e., I think anyone would admit that Dr. Oz's good looks, style and fitness are part of his style or brand in communicating his medical science messages)."

I disagree on this. My opinion is that while a story might describe Dr. Oz as handsome or charismatic, I think the equivalents of "babe" and a "kittenish voice" would never be used to describe a man.

On International Women's Day, The Globe should think about the impact it has with language.

And as a footnote, the website has again improperly used the term "girl" to describe a woman. In this case, the 24-year-old volunteer who was killed at a California animal park. This has now been corrected.

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If you have thoughts on this please comment below. Or send me an e-mail on this or any other issue at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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