A new case study found that depictions of diverse female scientists on social media inspired other women in STEM, but stereotypes of how women in STEM should look and dress persist in comments section.
Showing diverse women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) on social media inspired other women who want, or have, a career in the sciences, according to the results of a case study conducted by Alexandra Phillips, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). However, despite the positives of depicting diverse women in STEM online, the data also demonstrated that women in STEM continue to be stereotyped for their role.
To combat stereotypes of females in STEM, Phillips started the Instagram page Women Doing Science. On this page, she promotes the diversity of women in science by highlighting the many potential role models of women working in STEM currently for women who may lack such role models in their everyday lives or professional institutions.
In 2010, despite women accounting for almost 50% of employed US citizens, research showed that women only make up about one-third of the US workforce in STEM. This has changed little since 2010.
Over the past decade, Women Doing Science has accumulated almost 100,000 followers, transforming the activist’s creative passion project into an international movement. All the featured female scientists come from unique backgrounds and express themselves differently as individuals, but all express their enjoyment of their work in STEM.
The diverse backgrounds of female scientists featured in Women Doing Science include those who have taken their profession under the sea, and those who have chosen to stay on land, focusing on research areas including the study of rocks and animals, or even focusing in on the microscopic. Additionally, some female scientists featured on the page test robots, while others teach in academia. Due to its role in showcasing the diversity of the field, the site has grown its volunteers who recruit female scientists to share details and highlights of their roles in STEM.
"In a survey, followers mentioned that the diversity of posts was a main reason they engaged with the page, along with finding role models and generally getting inspiration,”Phillips said in a press release.
Additionally, Phillips noted some followers also noted that her posts showing the work and roles of women in STEM helped to alleviate their own experience of loneliness as a woman in a STEM field.
Based off her original goal for the site and follower input, Phillips did a case study on Women Doing Science—she analyzed if it successfully highlighted diverse and international scientists, and if this depiction of diversity impacted its followers. The results of the case study supported this goal, with 37% of posts highlighting women of color and one-third including bilingual captions.
However, the study results also suggested that women in STEM may struggle with issues of identity. One viral post from the case study highlighted this in particular, featuring a biology doctoral student wearing heels and makeup with her hair down. The comments section of this post sparked a flow of significant negative backlash and harassment online, primarily based on the women’s self-presentation.
"The third went viral for a bad reason, because the scientist was depicted as highly feminine and conforming to traditional stereotypes," Phillips explained. "That experience had always been on my mind while running the page. But getting to formally analyze it was really insightful for myself in processing what was happening. I realized how fragile the identities are of women in STEM, that an image of a female scientist that is beautiful and wants to be taken seriously has such a hard time doing so, even today. We just have so much more work to do for STEM to be a truly inclusive space for women, and especially for women with marginalized identities."
The many versions of a female scientist. University of California - Santa Barbara; Aug 1, 2022. Accessed Aug 2, 2022. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220801133148.htm.