In March, grad student Meghan Wright, wrote a piece in Science under the guise of women in STEM not needing to carry the burden of solving gender inequality on social media. Absolutely, it should be a shared responsibility of all people to ensure the gender, race (and more!) diversity is welcome, well-represented, and supported in all STEM fields, but also in all areas of society. However, Meghan may be perpetuating some real biases that work against women in sciences, as well as science as a whole, in her editorial.
First, she is perpetuating the Sagan Effect, which is the professional stigma associated with public engagement. It is based on the assumption that research quality is inversely proportional to the amount of outreach work you do. And it’s disturbing to see that it’s still so well-entrenched, even though there are many documented benefits to using social media for science outreach. Just a few of the benefits of using social media include:
- Social media has been shown to be effective at combating fake science and misinformation
- Those that tweet out their papers have an increased citation rate
- Creates relationship with decision-makers, allowing you to impart your scientific knowledge or advice even before your paper is published
- Connect with other scientists & researchers
- Take part in a conference you can’t attend through things like live tweeting
Beyond these published benefits, through my own use of social media, I’ve found additional benefits to its use:
- Sourcing relevant literature suggestions on new topics
- Getting feedback on ideas
- Promoting events
- Keeping a community informed about what research I’m doing in their area
- Ensuring that journalists and broadcasters can find out about my work
- Promoting my work once it’s released
So social media has a purpose beyond merely photos of cats or food, as Meghan is implying.
Second, Meghan is overlooking the body of research on trust and source credibility. Trust and credibility are inextricably linked, and people’s trust in scientific sources is influenced by not only perceived expertise but also common interests, openness and transparency. Credibility is not something that we as scientists inherently have, rather it is attributed to us by the listener/reader. By being relatable, by being willing to take part in the discussion, our audience grows to see us as credible. Perceived warmth and competence also contributes to our audience’s trust in us.
It is well established that if people are exposed to the same information repeatedly, they come to believe it as true—whether it’s fictional or not. The public does not have access to our academic or society conferences, and so scientists need to be at the public square that people are using. In this day and age, that public square is social media. Social media is currently used as a news source by the majority of North Americans, and so, it’s our responsibility, as scientists, to expose people to science on social media.
Finally, Meghan herself states that “female scientists spend demonstrably more time teaching, mentoring, and participating in community outreach than their male colleagues” and that perhaps they should better spend their time doing the research instead. The implication is that if women want to earn equal wages, recognition, and advancement as their male counterparts, that they should just keep their head down and science harder. But this is conflating the issue of quality of work with the issue of equality. It’s not that female scientists do lesser quality work (and that’s been shown time and again), it’s that there are struggles to achieving equal recognition. But this is something that women face in most careers, and so it’s another way that we can relate to other women—we have similar experiences—and relatability makes us trustworthy.
Meghan, of course, can use her social media in any way she likes, and in any way, she’s comfortable with. I also love photography and baking, though I bake much better than I photograph. However, we as women in STEM need to stop judging each other poorly for whether we do or do not use social media for outreach. As a SciComm researcher I’ve seen the empirical benefits to using it for science outreach. I get that it’s not for everyone, and that’s fine. But I hope that by sharing not only the science (and our passion for the science) along with our photography, baking, cats, kids, fitness goals, etc. with non-scientists, I can show that I’m more than just a one-dimensional, and hence unrelatable, scientist.