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Social Media Is Catalyzing Change for Women in Science

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Imogen Coe

The hashtag #distractinglysexy gave women in science all around the world a voice that has never existed before, on this scale or in this form.

Social media is a powerful tool that can be used to bring about positive change for women in science. Two recent events involving senior, highly-regarded scientists demonstrate the growing importance of social media as a catalyst for change in science.

In May, Science Careers, the online careers section of the prestigious scientific journal Science, posted an advice column by well-respected molecular biologist Dr. Alice Huang in response to a postdoctoral researcher "Bothered." The latter was seeking advice on how to handle her adviser who was repeatedly "looking down her shirt" during their meetings. Huang advised, "As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humour if you can."

I became aware of the article through Twitter. I was appalled by the advice in the column. Nobody should have to work in an environment that is anything less than respectful. The behaviour is an act of casual sexism, which is a pervasive problem in science. Although I was attending a conference at the time, I took a few minutes between talks to write an e-mail to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science Careers expressing my dismay and offering alternative constructive advice. I shared a snapshot of my email on Twitter, where it was quickly re-tweeted and endorsed by individuals around the world.

The speed at which social media connected scientists and mobilized them to support my advice was breathtaking. The hashtag #DontAskAlice picked up as did the entertaining and sarcastic #CrapScienceCareersAdvice. Science Careers quickly removed the advice column and subsequently posted crowdsourced and much better advice for "Bothered," including my two cents. I realized the power of speaking up on Twitter when the Washington Post contacted me for my comments on the issue.

Another week, another debacle. Earlier this month, Nobel-prize winner Dr. Tim Hunt made extraordinary and highly-offensive remarks about women in science, which were reported by Pulitzer-winning journalist Deborah Blum in a manner that was careful to ensure accuracy and the opportunity for correction.

Hunt's comments and the outrage that ensued quickly reverberated around the globe. Scientists, both women and men, took to Twitter to protest Hunt's comments using the hashtag #distractinglysexy, making fun of his comments that female scientists are distracting in labs. It is worth noting that Hunt is much closer to the tail end of a remarkably successful career than the beginning. I have no doubt of the authenticity of his confusion and pain but we should all be subject to consequences when making completely unacceptable statements in a public venue, just as the supervisor of "Bothered" should face consequences for his unacceptable behaviour. This is the standard that we, women and men in science, now expect of each other, as colleagues. The Tim Hunt incident also demonstrates how important it is for scientists to fully understand and embrace the power and role of media, particularly social media.

The subsequent backlash against the on-line responses to Hunt's comments, including claims of an on-line "witch-hunt," confirmed that misogyny and sexism were still a problem in science. But as we have learned in the past few weeks, the world is changing -- and there are many clever and funny women doing great science, who may or may not be #distractinglysexy, but who are treated as valued colleagues by other women and men in science alike.

Perhaps it is time for the media to pay more attention to those scientists, who happen to be women, and who are woefully under and mis-represented in all media. The spontaneous appearance of hashtags #DontAskAlice and #HuntGate can lead to discussions and promote constructive debate on what equity, diversity and inclusion really mean in science.

Women in science all around the world have found a common voice that has never existed before, on this scale or in this form. Voices of many, who feel silenced or unheard, are now heard, encouraged, supported and cheered on-line by a significant like-minded community. As a woman in science, I find this meaningful and profound.

As science and culture writer Philip Ball points out, the time of the Tim Hunts and Alice Huangs of science is passing. The new normal is the world of the witty and clever #distractinglysexy #WomeninScience who are more than #GirlswithToys and who, along with their supportive male colleagues, #DontAskAlice but rather work together for real #STEM change. This is the power of social media for positive change in science and it won't be stopped.


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