Think of a popular science presenter. Who came to mind first? David Attenborough? Brian Cox? Perhaps Bill Nye the Science Guy? Like much of the media, science presenting is a male-dominated field, but the media landscape is changing. Has the rise of open-to-all media platforms such as YouTube improved the visibility of women in science? I decided to find out.
Last year, as part of my biology degree, I worked on an independent final year science communication report. I decided to investigate the gender stereotypes in science media; focusing specifically on the gender differences of presenters of science media on YouTube and television. My idea was that while selection of traditional TV presenters is likely to be subject to gender-related biases throughout the career pathway, YouTube content might be more egalitarian, because content-creation is open to everyone. After collecting data on 200 STEM content presenters – a hundred each for YouTube and TV – it became apparent that, contrary to my optimistic hypothesis, women are not better represented on YouTube than on mainstream TV: in both cases, men made up more than two thirds of the presenters.
YouTube is a much more accessible platform than TV for creators as anyone is able to make a YouTube account and start uploaded videos, whereas TV involves a team of producers and directors, each with their own unconscious biases. Therefore, it was plausible to think that you would find more female presenters of science media on YouTube than on TV, however this wasn’t the case. Why not?
Stereotypes and bias
A few possible explanations sprang to mind. Perhaps male presenters have more experience, due to historic bias, and the effect of this persists. I analysed the presenters’ years of experience, and found that male presenters overall had more years of active presenting than female ones; however, this effect was strongest within the TV presenters, so does not fully explain the finding of male bias within YouTube presenters. Another possible explanation could be differences in the disciplines within science covered by the two types of media. I recorded the broad science field of the programmes I included, categorising them into engineering & technology, general science, life sciences, and physical sciences. Overall, there was no bias in coverage between the two media types, although interestingly, the male bias among physics presenters was not as strong on YouTube compared to TV.
Although YouTube is more accessible than TV in terms of becoming a content-creator, accessibility and inclusion issues do not stop there. Female creators and presenters can experience very different responses to their male counterparts, and these responses can be direct, personal and immediate. Women receive more hostile and sexist comments on their videos (1) and this is reflective of academia where women in STEM who publicly communicate their work are likely to be stereotyped as “bitchy”, “bossy”, and “emotional” (2). In the words of Emily Graslie’s (a key science communicator on YouTube, and the creator and host of the YouTube channel “The Brain Scoop”): “not only do you have to be intelligent and articulate but attractive”(3). Therefore there is a greater pressure on female creators to be both attractive and intelligent; a pressure, which male creators do not seem to be under. Emily also mentions that female YouTubers fear the feedback they receive from commenters and subscribers due to increased focus on their appearance over the quality of their content (3). This hyperfixation on a female YouTuber’s appearance and the negative audience reaction targeted towards female creators may be deterring women from becoming STEM communicators and presenters on media platforms like YouTube.
Why does this matter?
The potential deterrence of women is important because YouTube is the most used media platform for watching videos, after Netflix, for 18-34 year olds (4) and these platforms provide opportunities for realistic representation of women in STEM. Realistic representation can help tackle harmful stereotypes around women in STEM and evidence suggests that realistic and diverse portrayals of scientists in popular media can result in an increase in interest around scientific knowledge and careers in science (5). Therefore, it is important that we raise awareness around the hostile and sexist comments targeted towards female science communicators and work towards making online spaces, like YouTube, more welcoming and accessible to people of all genders.
I did this work when I was a final year Biology undergraduate at the University of York, with the support of supervisor Dr Elva Robinson. Thank you for helping me throughout my project and encouraging me to share my research with the scientific community.
- Döring N, Mohseni MR. Male dominance and sexism on YouTube: results of three content analyses. Feminist Media Studies. 2018 May 19;19(4):512–24.
- McKinnon M, O’Connell C. Perceptions of stereotypes applied to women who publicly communicate their STEM work. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications [Internet]. 2020;7(1).
- Ward A. Emily Graslie’s Sexist Haters Confronted in ‘Where My Ladies At?’ (Video) | Newsmax.com [Internet]. The Wire. 2013. Available from: https://www.newsmax.com/TheWire/emily-graslie-confronts-sexist-haters/2013/12/05/id/540158/
- Newberry C. 25 YouTube Statistics that May Surprise You: 2021 Edition [Internet]. Hootsuite. 2021. Available from: https://blog.hootsuite.com/youtube-stats-marketers/
- Tan A-L, Jocz JA, Zhai J. Spiderman and science: How students’ perceptions of scientists are shaped by popular media. Public Underst Sci. 2017;26(5):520–30.