Scolding female scientists for embracing Instagram doesn’t solve the gender gap in STEM

Yesterday, Science Magazine published an op-ed about why one woman doesn’t use Instagram for science outreach. The answer, according to this writer, is that women do science communication (or scicomm) because they are forced to by sexism, and, also, these women use too many emoji.

This is a shame because the op-ed 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 beneath paragraphs bizarrely holding up a single woman — fellow UoT doctoral candidate Samantha Yammine, also known as Science Sam — as emblematic of science communication and criticizing her for being too feminine.

The fault lies with Science, a highly respected publication, for publishing this op-ed, especially without first reaching out to Yammine. (Science editor-in-chief Jeremy Berg says the publication regrets not doing so. In an email to The Verge, Wright notes that she was careful to only directly quote what Yammine has stated publicly. This doesn’t excuse not contacting her for direct comment.) The piece could have been a thoughtful critique; instead, it spent more time tearing women down than suggesting solutions.

Wright has two arguments for why she doesn’t participate in Instagram. First, scicomm on Instagram ends up being mostly “pretty selfies, fun videos, and microscope images captioned with accessible language and cute emojis.” This is bad, she writes, because it shows “a very narrow representation of femininity.” Second, this scicomm is mostly done by women to try to solve the problem of gender disparities in science. Women shouldn’t have to do this extra work, which takes them away from research, and so we shouldn’t celebrate these efforts.

It clearly is a problem if images of “women in science” show only those who are all “physically attractive” and “not boring or unfashionable” and have the same “fun” aesthetic. As in all fields, representation must be broad. We should have women of color doing scicomm on Instagram, ones who aren’t as stylish, ones who are deadpan or flippant about science instead of bubbly. Having only one type of female scientist represented is harmful because it shows girls that, yes, they can be scientists — as long as they’re pretty and wear makeup. But is that true of the overall Instagram environment? We don’t find out because Wright only has one named example, and the “many others” she found feels oddly anecdotal, for a scientist. It’s possible to pull data on who uses social media and how. Wright didn’t do that.

Wright, with her distaste for femininity, could have chosen to illustrate another type of scicomm, filling the gap she felt she saw. She could have called on the scicomm community to spotlight different types of women doing outreach, as hashtags like #ILookLikeaScientist try to do. In response to the op-ed, Yammine revived the #ScientistsWhoSelfie hashtag (which she originally co-created to raise awareness about an experiment to test perceptions of scientists on social media) to promote exactly this. “I reject the claim about the narrow view of femininity because our community is vibrant and diverse,” Yammine wrote to The Verge in an email. “I’ve never encouraged traditional representations of femininity but do often advocate not to reduce women to the way they look, as was done to me in the article.”

Instead, Wright shames 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, serious science. It reinforces the sexist stereotype already plaguing female academics: that femininity means frivolity, and high heels are compensating for a lack of brainpower. It is fine that Wright doesn’t want to participate in this type of femininity. It is not fine that she wants to make decisions about how other female scientists present themselves.

Her second point — about how current women in STEM shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the labor for reaching out to potential women in STEM — looks fair at first. We have difficulty recruiting and retaining women in STEM fields, and oftentimes, this burden falls on the very women who are already disadvantaged. The data does show that female scientists do outreach work more than men, as Yammine herself notes. This situation occurs in other areas of academia, too: faculty who are racial minorities often do a lot of invisible labor by acting as mentors for minority students or sitting on diversity panels. Their white, male peers rarely do this work.

It isn’t fair. But the solution is not to tell women to stop doing outreach. Scolding female scicommers for their use of emoji or for being embraced by the community isn’t a solution to the gaps that exist in academia. Rather, universities should put more resources into supporting this kind of outreach. It should be prioritized on an institutional level, as well as a personal one.

Showing girls that they can be scientists is a noble cause! Maybe these scicommers are having fun in their selfies! In an era where the US administration is fighting science and basic facts about climate change are debated, more outreach and literacy is good.

Wright acknowledges that good has come from these female scientists on Instagram, but wonders “whether our efforts should instead be directed toward advocating for policy changes.” Yes, scicomm is not a panacea, and we should be advocating for policy changes, too. However, Wright provides no suggestions. It makes this critique feel like a straw man.

So here are some suggestions: universities could put more of their own money into recruiting women or pay women who do this work. Universities could explicitly encourage all scientists to do outreach, of whatever type feels natural, or offer resources for all scientists to learn more of the relevant skills. Similarly, instead of telling minority professors to abandon minority students, universities could make this invisible labor visible and reward them for their time and work. This evens the playing field in a better way.

Right now, the most important factor in evaluating consideration for tenure — essentially, a faculty job for life at an academic institution — is how many papers someone has published. It’s obvious that someone who spends a lot of time mentoring students or doing outreach will have less time to research and publish papers, harming that person’s tenure prospects. Universities could consider this kind of work as part of the tenure process, instead. A policy that rewards outreach signals that research isn’t the only important work, but instead, extending knowledge beyond the ivory tower and recruiting people who are traditionally neglected by academia have real value.

If female scientists feel like they must do scicomm to get ahead or support their gender, that’s definitely a problem. But as the premise of Wright’s op-ed suggests, they don’t. Wright herself has decided not to do it. That’s perfectly okay. It’s also okay to do scicomm and work within a system that could use some improving. Let’s call on the universities to do better and give more support and more parity. Shaming women for thinking that fun videos and selfies and science can go together solves absolutely nothing.