Images of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields are a powerful source of inspiration for young women aspiring to pursue careers in these fields. But stereotypes about women scientists persist, and we need to do everything we can to defeat them. So says Alexandra Phillips, a research fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s National Center for Environmental Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), in an article published in the journal Social networks + society.
“What do you think of when you think of a scientist? For a lot of people, the image of a scientist is influenced by things like movies and TV shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory’ where scientists – especially female scientists – are very stereotypical,” said Phillips, who is also the NCEAS Science Communication and Policy Fellow.
Indeed, popular culture still tends to typify women in STEM fields, which, among other things, contrasts femininity and the feminine appeal of intelligence and seriousness and questions women’s competence. Add to that a dearth of diversity representations, and a connection can be made between prevailing stereotypes and a lack of role models, as well as a significant gender disparity in the US STEM workforce. According to statistics from the National Science Council, women make up nearly half of the US employed population, but only about a third of the STEM workforce, a proportion that has changed little since 2010.
So in 2018, while pursuing a doctorate in organic geochemistry at Caltech, Phillips turned to Instagram and launched the site Women Doing Science, which features photos and profiles of women scientists from around the world in their element, be it the lab. , lecture halls or the field.
“I founded Women in Science because social media, unlike mainstream media, can show so many versions of what a scientist looks like, highlighting many potential role models for women in STEM that they can missing in everyday life or professional settings,” Phillips said. .
What started as a creative activity and a bit of activism quickly grew into an international movement with submissions from scientists around the world. There are women doing science underwater, peering into microscopes, examining rocks, studying animals, testing robots, lecturing. They differ in appearance and clothing, and they all look like they are enjoying their work. The site currently has nearly 100,000 subscribers and a large group of volunteers who help recruit more scientists and write about their work.
A healthy set of data naturally lent itself to case study.
“We wanted to determine whether Women in Science was successful in its goal of highlighting diverse and international scientists, and if so, what impact it had on the page’s followers,” Phillips said.
In their analysis, the Women Doing Science team found that the site was indeed successful at scale, with 37% of their posts featuring women of color and a third with bilingual captions. In fact, the presentation of diversity on the site is very attractive.
“During the survey, followers indicated that the variety of posts was the main reason they engaged with the page,” Phillips said, “along with finding role models and general inspiration.” Subscribers also noted the power that images of female scientists have had in helping with impostor syndrome and alleviating feelings of loneliness for women in the STEM field.
But there was also a downside. After examining three particularly viral posts, two subjects received high praise from followers for being “trailblazers,” while the third sparked a heated debate. It was a photo of a PhD student in biology in a lab, wearing heels, hair down and makeup on.
“The third one went viral for a bad reason because the scientist was portrayed as very feminine and conforming to traditional stereotypes,” Phillips said. She added that angry comments and direct messages to the said scientist amounted to harassment. At the same time, other commentators came to the defense of the doctoral student, criticizing others for tarnishing the image of a female scientist. To defuse the situation, the administrators decided to temporarily remove the post.
But this feedback was also important, highlighting pitfalls in women’s ongoing struggle to develop a STEM identity.
“That experience was always in the back of my mind when I ran the page,” Phillips said. “But being able to formally analyze it was very insightful for me in understanding what was going on. I realized how fragile the identities of women in STEM are, that the image of a female scientist who is beautiful and wants to be taken seriously has such a hard time doing so, even today. We just have a lot more work to do to make STEM a truly inclusive space for women, and especially for women with marginalized identities.”
The team hopes that this case study will provide valuable information to universities and research institutions as they work to create a STEM playing field for emerging researchers and add dimensions to the image of scientists.