Women in science communication

I’m so excited to say that a few weeks ago, I was selected to serve as the Director of Communications for the Michigan chapter of AWIS (Association for Women in Science). Being a part of AWIS for the past two years has been so eye-opening and thought-inducing – it’s a great community with even better discussions – and I’m passionate about supporting women in STEM at all levels, so having the opportunity to serve on the board is fantastic.

I was in Paris when I interviewed (Skyping from our tiny – but quaint, because it’s Paris, so everything is viewed through rose-colored lenses – AirBNB), followed by my time sampling in Norway, so I have finally had the time to sit down and really start working on this. I’m revamping the website and I’m working on getting a Michigan AWIS blog started where our members can share their experiences (good or bad) as a woman in STEM, give advice, comment on the current political climate… whatever they want, really. The point is to give our members a professional platform beyond publications or presentations. I’m so pumped about that, and I really hope it gets off the ground smoothly!

The other reason why I’m so excited about this is because I’m expanding it into Communications… and Science Communication. My other undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies, and I have always loved writing, so being able to combine my two skillsets and professional interests is amazing. I took a class on science communication last semester, hosted by the wonderful Julie Cole, and every Friday morning I walked away from that classroom feeling motivated and driven to contribute to the public science discussion – to progress. In today’s political climate, with science and scientists perceived as being under attack (though studies show that public opinion of scientists is actually steady, and majority positive), being able to clearly and simply explain what we do and why we do it is so important. I believe this is particularly important for scientists who don’t fit the old-fashioned stereotype of who a scientist is; unfortunately, for many people, when they are asked to describe a scientist, “white man with glasses and Einstein hair” is still the norm.

To keep science in the positive realm of the public sphere and to attract and encourage the new generation of scientists, this has to change. It is changing… but slowly. With social media presences de rigeur and an ever-technologically-savvy youth population, scientists today have the opportunity – and some would argue the obligation – to share our research and our lives as scientists online. Lab blogs, personal Instagram accounts, and department Twitters are ubiquitous at this point, which is an amazing first step. The trouble arises when it comes to audience.

The issue many scientists face is the fact that their audiences are typically rather small and – the real sticker – mostly limited to people who are already in science. How does one break out of that narrow window and connect with a much broader, less-specialized audience?

A number of science communication-minded Instagram accounts run by female scientists came under attack several months ago, with the author in Science Magazine arguing that while yes, these types of accounts do provide an alternative to the “white man with glasses” stereotype of scientists, they still present a “very narrow representation of femininity,” which she says reflects the underlying system where “traditional” female attractiveness is still the most crowd-pleasing representation, and where women are expected to carry out more mentoring and volunteer work than their male colleagues. It’s an interesting read and I recommend you check it out, but I also came across a number of articles rebuking the original opinion piece, with one headlined, “Scolding female scientists for embracing Instagram doesn’t solve the gender gap in STEM.” This provided the counter-argument that these women shouldn’t be put down because they fit the profile of “traditional femininity,” that they are entitled to run their Instagram with pipetting woes and cute selfies side-by-side. Additionally, because there was such strong feedback from the community, Science published a handful of responses, as well as this reply article. (The latter opens with, “Although we agree with M. Wright… that there are many systemic structures perpetuating the marginalization of women in science, we view social media as a powerful tool in a larger strategy to dismantle such structures.”)

Again, you should read each of these to appreciate the nuance of their arguments (they’re all pretty quick, thought-provoking reads), but this opened the doors to an entire realm of ongoing conversations about how women communicate their science, and whether or not the burden of science communication automatically falls to female scientists for the same reasons that female professors and PIs are expected to do lots of outreach and provide more emotional support for their students. Or… is it because we are passionate and vocal about supporting other women in science and wanting to encourage young women who may be uncertain if they’ll belong and be successful in STEM fields?

It’s a thorny and fascinating thing, one that I very much look forward to throwing myself into as I begin this work.

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