Women scientists and engineers under-represented in online media

Women are severely underrepresented in online science, technology and engineering [SET] media, according to a study for the UKRC.

Women are severely underrepresented in online science, technology and engineering [SET] media, according to a study for the UKRC.

The research, Monitoring the presence and representation of women in SET occupations in UK-based online media, was carried out by Dr Heather Mendick of Goldsmiths College and Marie-Pierre Moreau of the University of Bedfordshire. Previous research has looked at the representation of women engineers, scientists and technology workers in traditional media.

Dr Mendick says the patterns are similar. “Far fewer women than men are mentioned.”

Women were:

– Subject to muting of their ‘voices’. This includes instances where SET women are pictured, but remain anonymous and instances where they are used, mainly as science journalists, to ventriloquise other’s people scientific work.

– Subject to clustering in specific SET fields and website sections, particularly those about ‘feminine’ subjects or specifically about women.

– Associated with ‘feminine’ attributes and activities, notably as caring, demonstrating empathy with children and animals and as close to nature rather than to the physical world which is associated with masculinity.

– Predominantly White, middle-class, able-bodied and heterosexual.

– Peripheral to the main story and subordinated as students, young scientists, relatives of a male scientist and/or less likely than men to take an active role, such as conducting an experiment. Some facets of this are specific to online media. For example, there was less hyperlinking of women’s than men’s names in online SET.

– Discussed in terms of appearance, personality, sexuality and personal circumstances more often than men, in ways that detract from their scientific contributions and position them in the private domestic sphere. In particular, the extent of the sexualisation of women in SET is greater than that found in similar studies conducted in ‘traditional media’ and is linked to the prominence of user-generated content.

– More generally, constructed in ways that relocate them in the private domestic sphere, detract from their scientific contribution, and associate them, more often than men, with the new category of ‘bad science’.

Two stereotypes are commonly referred to: the young female SET communicator and the bad woman scientist.

The research also found that, although many web authors were aware of gender considerations around SET, they tended to consider that they were just reflecting the under-representation of women in SET in real life and did not question gender-based assumptions about what makes a good story.

Dr Mendick says women’s under-representation occurs despite the fact that the internet allows space for more expansive coverage of issues. “Women still seem to be compartmentalised and found in women in science pages and therefore marginalised,” she says, adding that there appeared to be a lack of awareness that what was deemed interesting in science, technology and engineering was not determined in a gender-free vacuum.

The study looked at SET content across 16 websites, from museum sites to blogs to YouTube and mainstream media. Eight sites were generalist: the BBC, Channel 4, Sky TV, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter. Eight sites were SET-specific: New Scientist, Bad Science, The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, Neuroskeptic Blog, Science – so what? So Everything, Watt’s Up With That? Blog and RichardDawkins.net. The research also drew on interview with web authors and young web users.

Dr Mendick says that in terms of images used to illustrate content, there was a tendency to rely on stock depictions of scientists, such as Einstein or Stephen Hawking. In addition, science blogging seemed to be particularly male-dominated with many of the comments on blogs being “antagonistic and very sexualising of women”.

She wants online writers to be more aware of gender issues and think more carefully about content and how the portrayal of women online affects real life decisions about careers.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *