Gender Imbalance in SciComm (Op-Ed)

Gender Imbalance in SciComm (Op-ed)

Written by Tammy Lee
Illustrated by Winsy Leung
This upcoming April marks the second anniversary of the U of T Science Communication Club’s inception. From drafting the club constitution in my third year of undergrad, to becoming the advisor of the club as a graduate student, our club has grown from a group of 10 to almost 35 in two academic years. It’s encouraging to know this platform was needed. We are seeing more students becoming aware of how to better communicate science and are giving them opportunities to practice and improve their skills. Although writers and illustrators in our club might be pursuing a science degree or are currently conducting scientific research, some members are considering and/or working towards a career in the field of science communication. As the first of its kind, our club helps members begin building a career by providing networking and workshop opportunities in addition to a platform for communicating science.

As we welcomed new writers and illustrators to the club for the winter term, one thing I couldn’t help but notice during our general meeting was the imbalanced ratio of men to women. Currently, the ratio is about 1:7. Is this happening by chance? Does this affect how the club functions? These are some of the questions which crossed my mind during the meeting. Surprisingly, after diving deeper into studies on this imbalance, there seems to be an over-representation of women in the field of science communication. Why? Despite the increasing number of women in scientific fields, an increase of gender differences in both productivity and impact persists. Is this underrepresentation of women related to this imbalance? Is science communication feminized?

In commentary pieces published last year in the Journal of Science Communication, Dr. Elizabeth Rasekoala, and Dr. Bruce Lewenstein – both widely-known science communicators – wrote about the need for feminist approaches to science communication. This is in response to the field becoming a ‘ghetto for women’ where science communication work is considered to be lower-paying and have less status and stability than science itself. Alongside the existing problem of sexual harassment in the field, these are all characteristics of a feminized and marginalized profession. Despite the over-representation of women in the field, it appears a small number of men are occupying the most prestigious and powerful positions in the field. For example, out of the 391 most popular STEM-themed YouTube channels, there are only 32 channels with a female host. As the second most popular search engine, content creators (or “YouTubers”) are often key opinion leaders whose content is considered influential. Adding to the issue of sexual harassment, female YouTubers/hosts of these channels receive countless sexist and negative comments about their appearance.

Back in 2018, Science Magazine published an op-ed piece which targeted Samantha Yammine, better known as “Science Sam,” for her use of Instagram as a tool for science communication. Samantha earned her PhD from Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s lab in the department of Molecular Genetics at U of T and educates her followers about STEM topics using interactive features on social media platforms. The author claimed Science Sam’s use of social media platforms shouldn’t be celebrated, and that, “time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men.” It was quite shocking, not only because this piece was published in a prestigious publication, but it was also written by a female scientist. From this statement, it is clear that the author is discrediting Samantha’s research work as a scientist, and is underestimating the value and reach of social media for communicating science. Discrimination like this is not uncommon to science communicators like Samantha, and sometimes it can even happen in professional settings.

If sexual harassment and discrimination towards female science communicators are becoming common issues, why aren’t there efforts being made to change things? The answer is, there’s a lack of discussion and interrogation about the ‘ghetto for women’ phenomenon in the field of science communication. Even though there are a few descriptive studies, commentaries, and analyses on gender bias and power-dynamics in the field of science communication, we need to dive deeper. It’s 2020, and we’ve only just scratched the surface. We need to bring in new perspectives, practices, and critiques on this issue. We need to assess this phenomenon on an inclusive, diverse, and global scale for the field to move forward.

Op-ed Disclaimer: This is an Op-ed article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of The U of T Science Communication Club.

Sources:

  1. Rasekoala, E. (2019). ‘The seeming paradox of the need for a feminist agenda for science communication and the notion of science communication as a ‘ghetto’ of women’s over-representation: perspectives, interrogations and nuances from the global south’. JCOM 18 (04), C07. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.18040307.
  2. Lewenstein, B. (2019). ‘The need for feminist approaches to science communication’. JCOM 18 (04), C01. https://doi.org/10.22323/2.18040301.
  3. Amarasekara I, Grant WJ. Exploring the YouTube science communication gender gap: A sentiment analysis. Public Underst Sci. 2019;28(1):68–84. doi:10.1177/0963662518786654
  4. Wright, M. Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. Science Magazine. 2018. doi:10.1126/science.caredit.aat5907
  5. Junming Huang, Alexander J. Gates, Roberta Sinatra, Albert-László Barabási. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2020, 117 (9) 4609-4616; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1914221117