By Allison Jewell
The field of science is a male-dominated environment and has been since its inception. This comes as no shock to the women involved in that career path. To many women in STEM, it’s a competition from the start — not only to be respected but to also be seen as trustworthy. However, when these ideals transfer over to the world of media and journalism, the problem becomes much more noticeable.
Underrepresentation in coverage
Dr. Austin Hubner, a researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville happens to study this phenomenon. She published a study, ‘The Invisible Frontline of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Examining Sourcing and the Underrepresentation of Female Expertise in Pandemic News Coverage’, earlier this year.
“You can see the difference between how people see you, and I felt I had to prove myself more. I talked in a laid-back tone, too, so that was another element,” Hubner said.
Hubner received her Bachelor of Science in scientific communication from Washington State where an advisor led her down the research path. She completed her master’s and Ph.D. in mass communication from Ohio State where she intended to study disease communication. After completing her dissertation on gender and communication, she used those numbers to start studying the phenomenon more, leading her to this most recent study.
The Great STEM Divide
The COVID-19 pandemic gave Hubner the perfect circumstance to study the consistency of data sourced from each gender. Her method involved analyzing New York Times articles that specifically pertained to COVID-19 studies and vaccines.
“We counted anytime a source was used, whether or not a researcher was referred to, then their organization, and every person mentioned,” she said. “We also considered in what order they were quoted. Usually, the most prominent and first source quoted is the primary scientist.”
Only scientists with advanced degrees were included in the tally as well. According to the results, 67.99% of the experts that were quoted were male, compared to 32% female. When a male and a female scientist were both quoted in an article, the female was the primary source in the article most of the time.
“Female sources are barely used,” Hubner said. “Journalists will speak to female sources but not even quote them.”
The data shows that women were either under-utilized at best during the pandemic or disregarded at worst. Hubner may know what, but not necessarily why.
This problem is not newly identified. Plenty of journalists and scientists have voiced their opinions, stating that women are not receiving the credibility in science they deserve. The solution, however, is multifaceted.
“The magical thing is to be seen as more credible,” Hubner said.
In reality, there needs to be improvements from more than just the journalism community. Universities have a tendency to choose a male as a representative when contacting a specialist. In recent years, there has been more awareness and initiative to be more intersectional, but it still falls short.
“The solution has to come from both sides of journalism and science. Female scientists need to get more comfortable talking to the media and having a relationship with journalists. Women should be given space in articles, and journalists should be making sure to reflect that,” Hubner said.
Hubner also mentioned that many male researchers also get friendly with journalists so that their work can be easily publicized.
The bottom line
However, the issue is that women are still underemployed and underrepresented in STEM. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission keeps track of this data, and out of all federal STEM workers women made up only 29.3% in a 2019 report — despite women surpassing men in attaining bachelor’s degrees every year, according to the PEW Research Center.
Hubner urges women in STEM to not let the gender expectations of research stop them. This goes for questioned credentials or just being told to smile more.
This problem is institutional and ingrained in American culture. To all the women out there struggling to find the respect or credibility they deserve in the field they dedicated their lives to, in Hubner’s words, “keep going!”
Photo Courtesy // The University of Louisville, Allison Jewell (The Louisville Cardinal)