Gender in Online Science and Technology: Understanding the gap between narratives and texts

Gender in Online Science and Technology:
Understanding the gap between narratives
and texts
Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre Moreau
Gender and SET
Horizontal segregation:
engineering, physics, computing
Vertical segregation:
2006-07 women represented 30% of researchers and 25% of
lecturers in SET in UK universities, but only 18% of senior
lecturers and 8% of professors
New Labour’s STEM agenda: ‘excellence and equity’
The Coalition cutting of funding to the UKRC and
‘mainstreaming’ gender equity
Women in SET in ‘traditional media’
Methods: websites
16 websites, 6 individual interviews with web
authors, group interviews with 32 web users
Sampling criteria for the websites:
- Informational, with a large audience and UKbased websites
-Variety of style and content
-General and science-specialist, professional and
amateur, ‘traditional’ and Web 2.0
Qualitative and quantitative
Methods: Interviews
6 web author interviews
4 women, 2 men; range of roles in web production
Asked about: views on SET and SET workers, views of
users, ideas about gender and SET offline and online
6 web user group interviews
32 participants aged 16-28
Asked about: internet use, views of SET and SET
workers, ideas about gender, engagement with websites
Discursive approach to the data: looking at positioning
Downplaying of Women in SET in
online texts
Women as a statistical minority in online texts
The muting of women’s ‘voices’
Source :,
accessed: 29 November 2010
to the
story the positioning of women
and positioned as
Ventriloquising other people’s
scientific work
Clustering in specific,
‘feminine’ SET fields and
website sections
A focus on appearance,
personality and the private
Association with bad science
Journalistic and scientific criteria
Journalistic criteria: “Is it interesting? Is it important? Can it be
explained in a way that makes it interesting or allows the
importance of it to be understood?” (Adrian, male). “Whether it’s
newsworthy and makes a good story” (Anna, female). There are
“things I think are important and significant, [but] unless it’s a
concept that can be easily written about ... then it’s probably not
gonna be a good article to write” (Simon, male).
Scientific criteria: “our biggest influence is the [scientific]
researchers themselves” (Barbara, female) “We [scientists]
seem to all find the same bits of the science exciting and the
same bits really interesting.” (Rachel, female)
“television doesn’t have the same aims as
science. Science is simply the process by which
we seek to understand nature. It is utterly apopulist. Its findings respect no social or political
norms or religious beliefs. In other words, when it
comes to the practice of science, the scientist
must never have an eye on the audience, for that
would be to fatally compromise the process.”
(Brian Cox, 2010)
“that whole family issue ... the difficulties people
have in getting back into research fields ... when
you haven’t been reading the journals for three
years because you’ve been, you know, changing
nappies … it’s not really something that are
deeply at fault with you know, the engineering
sector or physics sector” (Adrian, male)
Distinctions between representation and ‘reality’
“A bias towards female communicators.” (Barbara, female)
“There’s a subversive and subtle inherent sexism in most of the sciences,
which tends to put people off, put women off continuing within it” but in
relation to representations “as far as I can see, things work on their merits,
in representation, rather than anything to do with gender”. Men and
women are represented “proportionately, but not equally” and this is a
“fair” situation. (Anna, female)
“I think there still tends to be the kind of image that’s portrayed of like man
in white coat. If you look back even further to man in long beard beside
mantelpiece, but [laughter] I think it’s changing a lot … I think whilst from
the outside it might be perceived as man in white coat, but from the inside
there’s a lot more appreciation of the different roles. … the fact that each
role can be equally occupied by a woman or a man.” (Rachel, female)
‘empirical realism’: “in which a comparison of the realities ‘in’ and
‘outside’ a text is central”. (Ien Ang 1985, p.36)
“that a text can be a direct, immediate reproduction or reflection of
an ‘outside world’. … The empiricist conception denies the fact that
each text is a cultural product realized under specific ideological and
social conditions of production. And so there can never be any
question of an unproblematic mirror relation between text and social
reality: at most it can be said that a text constructs its own version of
‘the real’.” (Ien Ang 1985, p.37, original emphasis)