How do people react to Women Doing Science?

01 August 2022

International scientists are using social media to both promote images of diverse women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and study how people respond to these posts.

  • Women Doing Science

    Women Doing Science

Sustainable Development Goals 5 - Gender Equality

The team, which includes researchers from the University of Canterbury (UC), California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), runs the Women Doing Science Instagram account, where they share photos of women in STEM doing their research with accompanying descriptions.

Their newly published study in academic journal Social Media + Society looks at how successful the Women Doing Science Instagram page, with almost 100,000 followers, has been in portraying women scientists with diverse racial and national identities, and how the audience for these posts reacts to these portrayals.

So, what have UC, Caltech and UCLA researchers learned from their social media-based investigation? How do people react to posts of Women Doing Science on Instagram?

Dr Camilla Penney recently moved from Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge, UK, to join the University of Canterbury (UC) as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment. An expert in seismic hazards and tectonics, Dr Penney got involved in Women Doing Science (WDS) while working as a researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, California.

“Women Doing Science isn't my current main research focus – which is about using computer models to investigate potential future earthquakes – but is the subject of our new paper, and a project I’m really passionate about. This research looks at how we can use social media to help young women to imagine themselves as future scientists,” she says.

“We particularly wanted WDS to highlight scientists from diverse racial and international backgrounds, because a lot of social media is dominated by white scientists from the US. We also wanted to take women’s science seriously rather than just talking about their lives outside research,” she says. “In this paper, we looked at how well WDS actually did in highlighting diverse, international stories – and what the impact was for followers seeking role models.”

The Women Doing Science page showcases a diverse range of scientists in terms of racial identity, nationality, and area of study – 30% of posts had bilingual captions with posts spanning 66 countries of origin and 29 languages, and 37% of posts featured scientists of colour.

WDS followers ‘liked’ these racially diverse and international (bilingual or multilingual) posts more than posts of white women with just English captions. Followers also engaged more with posts which showed women breaking stereotypes, like writing equations on a blackboard. Women of colour were more likely to mention other things besides science in their captions, like belonging in STEM, outreach, mentoring, and their racial/ethnic identity.

“Showcasing a wide range of women doing science, particularly those from marginalised groups, can inspire potential future scientists by allowing them to see people like themselves as scientists,” Dr Penney says. “Survey responses from our audience, mostly young female scientists or aspiring scientists, suggests that they use the Women Doing Science page as a source of inspiration and encouragement that they can be scientists, particularly when they don’t have real-life role models.”

In audience surveys as part of the WDS research one respondent commented: “Growing up I never saw WOC [women of colour] in the sciences, it’s very empowering to see what other women are doing.” Another said: “Women Doing Science helps with imposter syndrome on bad days”.

The WDS social media initiative was sparked in part to counteract pop culture depictions of science – in movies and TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory – where scientists, especially portrayals of female scientists, are highly stereotyped. Caltech (where the sitcom was partly set), is where WDS was founded.

Reactions to one post suggest that even women in science still find it hard to reconcile stereotypes with their reality. This post – which featured a female scientist with her hair down and makeup done in the lab – got so much negative reaction it had to be removed from the WDS page for a while.

According to the researchers, this range of reactions show “the challenges women in STEM face with how to present themselves and their appearance… the diversity of what women want to see in scientists is as diverse as the women themselves... Women Doing Science contributes a much-needed platform on social media: a place for diverse women to express their individuality as scientists. Showcasing diverse women in STEM on social media may help to support the ongoing fight to reimagine and diversify the image of a scientist”.

Although this research suggests social media can contribute to challenging stereotypes of women in STEM, the researchers emphasise that more effort is needed in other areas, such as faculty hiring, to alleviate gender and racial gaps.

“Social media can only go so far – aspiring scientists need real-life role models to look up to, which ultimately needs more effort from institutions to get the diverse graduate students who represent most of the featured scientists on Women Doing Science into senior positions. That also mean making the culture of science something women from diverse backgrounds want to be part of and are valued in,” says Dr Penney.  

“We have much more work to do for STEM to be a truly inclusive space for women.”

  • University of Canterbury geophysicist Dr Camilla Penney

    University of Canterbury geophysicist Dr Camilla Penney, formerly of Cambridge University and Caltech, and has been countering stereotyping of women in science around the world via social media. Photo credit: Ruth Lawlor

Media contact:

  • Email: media@canterbury.ac.nz Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168
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