This ‘women science blogging revolution‘ has really been amazing to watch unfold. From Kate Clancy’s initial call to arms to Christie Wilcox’s forthright ‘Bring it‘ (as well as David Dobbs ‘Sister, you kicked some ass’ and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘But…’), and much, much more.
I thought I’d contribute by sharing a bit of recent empirical research about women, science and online media:
- Mendick, H. and Moreau, M. (2010). Monitoring the presence and representation of women in SET occupations in UK based online media. Bradford: The UKRC.
You can download the report and read it yourself, or here are my notes.
What they did
Mendick and Moreau considered the representation of women on eight ‘SET’ (science, engineering and technology) websites: New Scientist, Bad Science, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, Neuroskeptic, Science: So What, Watt’s Up With That and RichardDawkins.net. They also monitored SET content across eight more general sites: the BBC, Channel 4, Sky, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter.
Yes, they did include Watt’s Up With That in a list of science sites. Personally, I think it gives an interesting bit of context and flavour to the study. It doesn’t legitimse the site. Remember, they are looking at gender, not truth claims. That said, I did think it was odd they didn’t reflect more on its slightly different status (if only because I think that’s interesting sociologically).
Additionally, they interviewed six ‘web authors’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8. See also Appendix 4), and carried out group interviews with 32 young ‘web users’ (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 8-9. See also Appendix 5). The researchers note that they find any distinction between writers and users problematic with respects to online media, stressing a blurring of boundaries around such roles and explictly distancing themselves from the attitude to online science media taken by a report on Science the Media published by the UK government last year (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 4-6).
What they found
I’m going to focus on the results from their analysis of web content, as this post is already quite long and I want to leave space to also discuss their methodology. Do read the full report yourself if you are interested – it’s quite accessibly written.
Their results suggest online science informational content is male dominated in that far more men than women are present. On some websites, they found no SET women. All of the 14 people in SET identified on the sampled pages of the RichardDawkins.net website were men, and so were all 29 of those mentioned on the sampled pages of the Channel 4 website (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 11).
They found less hyperlinking of women’s than men’s names (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 7). Personally, I’d have really liked some detail as to how they came up with this, and what constituted ‘hyperlinking of women’s names’ precisely. It’s potentially an interesting finding, but I can’t quite get a grip on what they are saying.
They also note that when women did appear, they were often peripheral to the main story, or ‘subject to muting’ (i.e. seen but not heard). They also noted many instances where women were pictured but remain anonymous, as if there are used to illustrate a piece – for ‘ornamental’ purposes – and give the example of the wikipedia entry on scientists, which includes a picture a women as an example, but stress she is anonymous (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12).
Echoing findings of earlier research on science in the media (e.g. the Bimbo or Boffin paper), they noted that women, when represented, tended to be associated with ‘feminine’ attributes and activities, demonstrating empathy with children and animals, etc. They also noted a clustering in specific fields. For example, in the pages they’d sampled of the Guardian, they found seven mentions of women scientists compared with twenty-eight of men, and three of the these women were in a single article, about Jane Goodall (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 12-13).
The women presented were often discussed in terms of appearance, personality, sexuality and personal circumstances, again echoing previous research. They also noted that women scientists, when present, tended to be younger than the men, and there was a striking lack of ethnic diversity (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 14).
There were also some interesting hints about women having a particularly hard time when it came to sceptical communities, women are more likely to be associated with dishonesty, or at least foolishness. This was both in the Bad Science end of this, and what might be seen as ‘pseudo-scepticism’ of Watts Up With That (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18).
One site they did seem to quite like was Science: So What (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 19).
What I thought
I’m going to be quite critical of this research. It’s not actively bad, it just seems to lack depth and precision. I suspect Mendick and Moreau were doing their best with low resources and an overly-broad brief. I also think that we are still feeling our way in terms of working out how to study online science media, and so can learn something from such a critique.
Problem number one: it’s a small study, and yet a ginormous topic. I’d much rather they had looked at less, but made more of it. At times I felt like I was reading a cursory glance at online science. Problem number two: the methodological script seemed a bit stuck in the print era. I felt the study lacked a feel for the variety of routes people take through online science. It lacked a sense of online science’s communities and cliques, its cultures and sub-cultures, its history and its people. It lacked context. Most of all, it lacked a sense of what I think sits at the center of online communication: the link.
It tries to look at too much, too quickly. We’re told that of the blog entries sampled from Bad Science, three out of four of the women mentioned were associated with ‘bad science’, compared to 12 out of 27 of the men . They follow up this a note that Goldacre has appeared on television critiquing Greenfield, a clip of which is on his site (Mendick & Moreau, 2010: 17-18). OK, but ‘bad’ needs unpacking here, as does the gendered nature of the area Goldacre takes aim at. As for Susan Greenfield, she is a very complex character when it comes to the politics of science and gender (one I’d say it is dangerous to treat representations of simplistically). Moreover, this is a very small sample, without much feel for the broader media context the Bad Science blog works within, including not only other platforms for Ben Goldacre’s voice but comment threads, forums and a whole community of other ‘bad science bloggers’ (and their relationships with each other). NB: I think there are interesting and important discussions to have about gender and sceptic communities, which is precisely why discussion of this needs to be done well.
I also got a bit annoyed at the analysis of the wikipedia entry on scientists (they note the image of a scientist is of a woman, but that she is anonymous). OK, it’s an example of a nameless woman, but the culture of anonymity around the idea of a scientist is important to remember here. There is a gender politics to this, but that needs to be brought out, as do the new ways in which cultures of the web may disrupt or change this politics (personally, I’d start quoting this fascinating statement on Holfordwatch whilst reaching for my copy of Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium).
In fact, I was surprised not to see issues of identifying gender within anon/ pseudonymous identities come up. To me, this flagged up a lack of attention on of forums that many of the sites they looked at contained. Indeed, the relative lack of attention the report played to conversations between people was, I thought, especially odd considering a key finding of one of the rare bits of research that has been done on young people and science online is that they go to the web to talk to each other, rather then to be fed content (admittedly, this study is a bit old, but I was surprised not to see it referenced).
The approach to twitter was, I thought, especially weak. It boiled down to a keyword search for Ada Lovelace, Susan Greenfield, Alice Roberts on one side, and Charles Babbage, Richard Dawkins, and Robert Winston on the other. I guess it could generate some data to then have a play with, but they don’t seem do anything with it, and I remain unconvinced that it’s the best first step anyway. Keywords just don’t capture twitter. Trending terms, maybe (maybe).
The report needed to reflect something of the routes people take through online science. Their use of focus groups does capture this up to a point, but it really was very small and, for me, called out to be supplemented with more ethnographic work. The hyperlink disrupts the basis for a traditional content analysis, news-sharing and link curation sites, folksonomies, etc even more so. You can’t treat twitter like a pile of paper to search for the existence of particular words within: it’s too complex a social system. We need to consider the time people dwell online, and how they interact with each other there.
To conclude, It’s always easy to say what people haven’t done and point a finger with ‘it’s more complicated than that’. My argument is that this study spreads itself too thin. Maybe it’s best to think of it as a first sketch towards later work that will learn how to capture the richness of the subject matter. To make a practical suggestion, the iterative research methodology applied by the Cardiff study, which applied feedback from research subjects along the way, strikes me as extremely applicable to studying online media.
I want to reiterate that I suspect the researchers were working with an overly-broad brief and simply weren’t given the resources to meet it. If we want to understand the cultures and politics of science online – and I think we should – we need to fund people with the time and resources to have a proper look.