Research Launch: Representations of Women Scientists in Online Media

On 2nd December we will be launching the report:

Monitoring the Presence and Representation of Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Occupations in UK Based Online Media

All welcome…

The research was conducted by Heather Mendick (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Marie-Pierre Moreau (University of Bedfordshire) and funded by the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET.

The launch will be held at the Institute of Physics, in London, starting at 6:30, refreshments available from 6pm.

RSVP to Heather Mendick

Summary of the research

In this report, we detail research into the representation of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) within online media. The context for this research is both the rapid expansion in the production and use of the internet and the ongoing under-representation of women within SET fields, particularly physics, computing and engineering.

The research involved data collection and analysis from websites, web authors and young web users. We monitored SET content across 16 websites. Eight sites were generalist: 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 We interviewed six web authors involved in the sites analysed. We asked them to speak about their role and organisation, their use of the internet, and their views of SET and of gender and SET. We also carried out six group interviews with a total of 32 young web users. Four of the group interviews were carried out with 16+ students in schools and two with university students. We asked web users to speak about their use of the internet, and their views of SET and of gender and SET. We also asked participants to respond to some extracts from the websites that we analysed.

Our key finding from our monitoring of representations across 16 websites is that online science informational content is male dominated in that far more men than women are present. Examining the representations of women in SET and comparing these with those of men, we found that these women are:

  • 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. The relative expansiveness of web space compared with ‘traditional media’ allows this online ‘female’ presence that positively links women with SET. However, it also contributes to their construction as women in SET and thus to their continued marginalisation.
  • 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, we found 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 online.
  • 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’.

Overall, our analysis shows that online constructions of women in SET lack diversity, and are dominated by a few archetypal portrayals. Among these, key emerging figures are the young female SET communicator and the bad woman scientist.

Our key findings from our six individual interviews of web authors and six group interviews of web users are that:

  • The internet is central to the provision of SET information, with representations being a co-production between ‘authors’ and ‘users’ and practices also reflecting a convergence between web authoring and web use.
  • Web authors show a significant level of gender awareness in offline and online SET, although they also hold diverse views of gender. However, they tend to see themselves as part of cultures of journalism or science and to use associated criteria to select material. This mitigates against using equity as a criterion for representation despite their gender awareness.
  • SET is largely ‘black-boxed’, that is, it is understood as a method separate from those who conduct it, both the views of web authors and of web users. This creates a narrow version of SET with insiders and outsiders and separates gender from SET and contradicts how gender enters into participants’ images of scientists.
  • Web authors’ views on gender and SET act to position online media as not a site of intervention. This happens in two ways. First, many understand the reasons for gender differences in offline SET as outside of SET. Second, they generally view online representations as a reflection of offline contexts.
  • Editorial decisions within online SET were largely individual decisions, rather than the result of the implementation of institutional policies and guidelines. Thus, they were the province of the journalistic and scientific criteria identified above, and/or of personal judgements about ‘appropriateness’.
  • Web users produce diverse ‘readings’ of websites. Some group interview participants produced critical and gender aware accounts of online SET texts, while others generated examples of sexism arising from ‘laddish’ behaviours, paralleling the gender regimes of some websites.



3 thoughts on “Research Launch: Representations of Women Scientists in Online Media

  1. Hi Heather,

    Will you speaking about this at GEA’s Exeter conference? I would love to hear more about your research (unfortunately I was unable to attend the launch)

    Kind regards,

  2. Hey Elizabeth, Thanks for your interest. I’m coordinating a symposium on Science, Gender and Representation at the conference. Marie-Pierre and I will be talking about the report as part of this. Liz Whitelegg and Gill Kirkup will also be presenting in the session. I hope to see you there, Heather

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