Yesterday, Science magazine published an opinion piece on why a woman does not use Instagram for the scope of science. The answer, according to this writer, is that women make scientific communication (or scicomm) because sexism forces them to do it and, in addition, these women use too many emojis.
It's a shame because the opinion piece by Meghan Wright, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, could have been a sharp analysis of gender disparities in science, labor issues and a specific call for better university policies. Instead, these points are lost under the paragraphs that strangely hold a single woman, UoT PhD candidate Samantha Yammine, also known as Science Sam, as emblematic of scientific communication and criticizing women for being too feminine .
The ruling lies in Science, a highly respected publication, for publishing this opinion article, especially without first contacting Yammine. (In an email to The Verge, Wright notes that he was careful to cite directly what Yammine has publicly stated.) This does not excuse not contacting her for a direct comment.) The piece could have been a thoughtful critique; instead, he spent more time tearing women apart than suggesting solutions.
Wright has two arguments about why she does not participate in Instagram. First, scicom on Instagram ends up being mostly "pretty selfies, funny videos and microscopic images with accessible text and cute emojis". This is bad, he writes, because it shows "a very narrow representation of femininity". Secondly, this Scicomm is carried out mainly by women to try to solve the problem of gender disparities in science. Women should not have to do this additional work, which drives them away from the research, so we should not celebrate these efforts.
The solution is not to tell women to stop reaching. Universities should put more resources to support this kind of scope
It is clearly a problem if the images of "women in science" show only those that are "physically attractive" and "not boring or out of date" and that have the same "fun" aesthetic. As in all fields, the representation must be broad. We should have women of color doing sccomm on Instagram, who are not so smart, who are expressionless or frivolous about science instead of bubbly. Having only one type of scientist represented is harmful because it shows girls that, yes, they can be scientific, as long as they are pretty and make up. But is that true of Instagram's general environment? We do not realize because Wright has only one example, and the "many others" he found feel strangely anecdotal to a scientist. It is possible to extract data on who uses social networks and how. Wright did not do that.
Wright, with his distaste for femininity, could have chosen to illustrate another type of scicomm, filling the void he felt he had seen. She could have asked the scicomm community to highlight the different types of women who do outreach activities, as they try to do hashtags like #ILookLikeaScientist. In response to the opinion article, Yammine created the hashtag #ScientistsWhoSelfie to promote exactly this. "I reject the claim about the narrow vision of femininity because our community is vibrant and diverse," Yammine wrote to The Verge in an email. "I have never encouraged traditional representations of femininity, but often advocate not reducing women to the way they look, as I was done in the article."
Instead, Wright embarrasses women like Yammine for their femininity and for celebrating it in the workplace. The implicit suggestion is that this type of femininity is embarrassing and antithetical to good and serious science. It reinforces the sexist stereotype that already torments female academics: that femininity means frivolity and high heels compensate for the lack of intellectual capacity. It's good that Wright does not want to participate in this kind of femininity. It is not right for her to want to make decisions about how other women scientists present themselves.
Her second point, about how current women in STEM should not have to carry the work to reach potential women in STEM, seems right at the beginning. We have difficulties recruiting and retaining women in the STEM fields, and often, this burden falls on the same women who are already disadvantaged. The data shows that women scientists work more than men, as Yammine points out. This situation also occurs in other areas of the academy: teachers who are racial minorities often do a lot of invisible work acting as mentors for minority students or participating in diversity panels. Your white and male peers rarely do this work.
It's not fair. But the solution is not to tell women to stop doing outreach activities. Scolding scicommers women for their use of emoji or for being accepted by the community is not a solution to the gaps that exist in the academy, especially in science. Rather, universities should put more resources to support this kind of scope. It must be prioritized at the institutional level, as well as a personal one.
Showing the girls that they can be scientists is a noble cause! Maybe these scicommers are having fun in their selfies! At a time when the US administration UU Fight against science and basic facts about climate change are debated, a greater scope and literacy is necessary.
Wright acknowledges that women scientists have achieved something good on Instagram, but wonders "if our efforts should be directed to advocate for policy changes." Yes, Scicomm is not a panacea, and we should also advocate for policy changes. However, Wright does not offer suggestions. It makes this criticism feel like a straw man.
correcting cultural prejudices and extending knowledge beyond the ivory tower also have merit
So here are some suggestions: universities could allocate more of their own money to the recruitment of women or women who do this work. Universities could explicitly encourage all scientists to undertake extension activities, or any type that feels natural, or offer resources for all scientists to learn more about relevant skills. In the same way, instead of asking minority teachers to drop out minority students, universities could make this invisible work visible and reward them for their time and work. This equals the playing field in a better way.
At this time, the most important factor in the evaluation of the consideration of tenure, in essence, a job of the faculty for life in an academic institution, is how many documents someone has published. It is obvious that someone who spends a lot of time advising students or doing extension activities will have less time to research and publish documents, harming that person's tenure prospects. Universities may consider this type of work as part of the tenure process, instead. A policy that rewards scope states that research is not the only important work, but instead, broadening knowledge beyond the ivory tower and recruiting people traditionally neglected by the academy has real value.
If the scientists feel that they should do scicomm to get ahead or support their gender, that is definitely a problem. But as the premise of Wright's opinion piece suggests, it is not. Wright herself has decided not to do it. That is perfectly fine. It is also good to do scicomm and work within a system that could improve. Let's call universities to improve and provide more support and more parity. Embarrassing women for thinking that funny videos, selfies and science can go together does not solve anything at all.
We have contacted Science to obtain comments and we will update if the publication responds.