We must do better to recognize the contributions of women in science

By LAUREN PADILLA | March 7, 2019

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PUBLIC DOMAIN Padilla thinks that media coverage of women in STEM has decreased since an uptick following Hidden Figures.

In a now decades-old interview with Gloria Steinem, Sally Ride discussed the barrage of sexist comments she fielded from members of the press, as the first American woman to travel to space. Ride recalled how the news media focused not on her abilities, skills or qualifications, but derailed interviews to remark on her makeup, physique and reproductive organs. Living in 2019, it’s tempting to dismiss such interactions as cringeworthy reminders of a seemingly distant past. Sadly, however, media coverage of women in STEM remains problematic. 

A 2015 study showed that over 80 percent of names included in press coverage are men’s — a result which appears to stem from the media’s emphasis on leaders, coupled with biases, both explicit and implicit, that prevent women from gaining attaining managerial roles. 

And when women scientists do surmount the gendered reporting gap and appear in feature stories, news coverage centers primarily on their physical appearance. Results from a 2010 study of the U.K. press’ depictions of women scientists showed that half the media portrayals of women scientists included notes about the subjects’ attire or appearance, while references to men’s physiques surfaced in just over 20 percent of stories. 

Other reports have shown that press coverage of women scientists shifts the focus from the subjects’ professional accomplishments to their marital or maternal status — a pattern reminiscent of the Cult of Domesticity. Not too long ago, it was commonplace for reporting that surrounded women scientists to fixate on interviewees’ culinary or sewing abilities.

While I had hoped that the 2016 release of Hidden Figures would prompt greater coverage of women of color in STEM fields, I’ve found myself largely disappointed. Several major media outlets ran long-overdue coverage of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan around the release of the film, drawing greater awareness to the contributions African-American women have and continue to make to STEM. 

Still, since then, it seems like portrayals of women of color in STEM have dwindled (at least amongst larger, national publications), leaving the initial coverage feeling less like a celebration of diversity and representation and more like tokenism.

However, the subject of women of color in STEM deserves more than its current treatment as a “niche” or “trend.” The advancements and accomplishments women STEM professionals have made in their respective areas, many of which have gone un- or underacknowledged due to the “double bind” of racism and sexism, are innumerable. Increasing both the quantity and quality of reporting covering women of color in STEM is not just an abstract goal but an essential step toward achieving long-term equity for all women. 

Some members of the press have made conscious efforts to correct imbalances in media coverage of women in STEM. Ed Yong and Adrienne LaFrance, who have reported on science and technology for The Atlantic, both published articles investigating the gender balance in their own writing. In her 2015 analysis, LaFrance discovered that only 22 percent of the individuals mentioned in her articles were women. Yong’s research yielded a similar rate: About 25 percent of the people he quoted in his pieces were women.

Asking reporters and other media staff to conduct similar examinations of their own work could help the press make critical strides toward achieving more equitable, representative coverage. Everyone has implicit biases, and in a world where 70 percent of people automatically associate “male” more readily than “female” with science, spotlighting the extent and impact of personal bias may encourage newsrooms to adopt more comprehensive approaches to addressing gender disparities in reporting.

Mitigating the gender imbalance in coverage of women in STEM isn’t as straightforward as addressing bias amongst individual reporters. 

Newsrooms, just like labs or university departments, are institutions, packed with their own underlying prejudices. News organizations are still predominantly male and white, especially amongst senior leadership. Reporters, despite their best efforts, may lack the authority or autonomy to dictate their own pieces. 

Still, readers may exert influence over the inclusiveness of news coverage through social media and online engagement. Today, many newsrooms measure the success of a particular story or perspective by the amount of reader engagement it receives. Sharing a story about women in STEM can not only help to popularize historically overlooked narratives but also encourage newsrooms to continue publishing similar stories. 

Each March, press coverage of women in STEM spikes during Women’s History Month, before retreating to its previous levels for the remainder of the year. But media representation of women in STEM is too important to relegate to a single month. 

Until everyone can recognize the name Emmy Noether as well as Einstein and recall the accomplishments of Isabella Aiona Abbott, May Edward Chinn and Annie Easley as easily as those of Newton and Darwin, the press and the public have an obligation to advocate for equal representation of stories. 

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