Talking about #womeninscience

In the past year, women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have received a lot of online attention. News articles, lists of female scientists on Twitter and Google+, a gender bias survey for journal editors, and conference sessions (such as in next week’s “Women in Science” session at SpotOn London 2012#solo12WIS) have all intensified the online focus on issues faced by women working in STEM.

As in previous years, International Women’s Day (8 March) prompted renewed celebration of women’s contributions in research, in addition to introspective discussions of women’s lifestyles and career choices in STEM fields. But these calm conversations later gave way to collective splutters of outrage after the European Commission released a cringe-inducing and garish video called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, which was meant to encourage girls to become scientists.  Although it was probably made with good intentions, the video was publicly lambasted (primarily through Twitter under the hashtag #sciencegirlthing) for being ridiculous, sexist, and counterproductive to the EU’s “Women in Research and Innovation” campaign, and was quickly replaced with something less controversial. Nevertheless, this incendiary video set the stage for subsequent discussions, which reinforced the idea that something had to be done, not only to increase the visibility of women working in STEM fields, but also to improve aspects of their careers that would encourage them to stay in research.


Adding data to personal stories

A lot of the existing discussion has been based around personal experiences, survey statistics, proposed solutions of alternative career tracks, and advice for female scientists. In September, data to back up claims of subtle sexism in science came via an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students”. This study by Moss-Racusin and colleagues attempted to explain the scarcity of females in senior academic positions by revealing unconscious biases in faculty members’ attitudes towards early-stage female scientists. The authors of the study asked 127 science faculty members from various American research institutions to assess the suitability of a student applicant for a lab manager position. The twist was that the student applicant’s name was randomly assigned as either a male or a female one. Unfortunately, the results of the study indicated that, regardless of the gender of the faculty members, the male applicant was generally perceived to be more competent and hireable, even though his qualifications were identical to the female applicant’s. Furthermore, faculty members were more likely to wish to mentor the male applicant, and tended to offer the female applicant a lower salary. Although scientists aim to be methodical and unbiased in their work, the study revealed that in real-life job affairs, they tend to subconsciously suppress opportunities for females in their field… even if they themselves are female.


From reactions to advocacy?

With a high score in the Altmetric database, the Moss-Racusin et al. study was met with a flood of anecdotal responses, not only in social media and blogs, but also in comments posted on news sites (such as the New York Times). Although many commenters criticised flaws in the study (such as the misleading and unlabeled scales of some figures), there was a general consensus that the findings were believable.

Damning study: Science faculty rate identical job applicants more competent & likable w/ male name attached… via @yardi

— Marshall Kirkpatrick (@marshallk) September 22, 2012

No surprise: male scientists are biased against female applicants. Surprise: female scientists are too.

— Daniel Gilbert (@DanTGilbert) September 21, 2012

By sharing the Moss-Racusin et al. article, online users (mainly from the general public and the scientific community) have likely drawn much more attention to the issues faced by women in STEM fields than would have been possible through the academic journal alone. The article, made freely available to all, created a greater opportunity to advocate online for the elimination of gender bias in science. Influential blog posts at Discover Magazine, Scientific American, and Smithsonian spread the word to their readers, collectively garnering hundreds of comments from visitors of all genders and backgrounds. Independent bloggers also chimed in, with notable posts from Uncommon Ground, Uncertain Principles, and Ecological Society of America.


Turning research impact into personal impact

With hundreds of voices contributing to the issues raised by the study, widespread awareness of the study’s findings was achieved. Detailed online discussions, by academics, students, etc. all boosted the importance of the study. However, to remedy the gender bias problems that were identified, the next step needs to be action. Whether the combined academic and online focus on the results of the Moss-Racusin et al. study could actually help to improve the gender balance for early-stage researchers remains to be seen in the coming years.