Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Addressing gender bias in STEM communications

10 Feb 2021
As International Day of Women and Girls in Science and International Women’s Day approach, what can we as communications professionals do to promote and support female researchers in our institutions, academies and universities?

By Ruth Francis

Women face well-documented bias in STEM; they have to work harder to achieve the same as their male colleagues. Even in fields where there is greater gender balance among graduates and postdocs, the pipeline leaks as female researchers leave and more men reach the top. We may have been brought up on stories of sole scientists solving life’s conundrums, but modern science requires many people to work together. Progress benefits from a range of perspectives and we are missing out if we do not include diverse voices. If venture capitalists are leaving trillions on the table with their lack of diversity, how much is academia and research losing out?

As press officers and communicators, we are not in a position to address all the issues contributing to the imbalance, but we can proactively strive for gender equality in university communications. By making conscious choices as we go about our day to day work, and by advocating for change where we see opportunities, we can help raise the profile of women in research and encourage positive change.

For example, I know of at least one journal group that has a pledge to avoid all-male panels, and the comms team aims to quote a female researcher in each press release issued. If a female author is not available, an author of a related comment article may be asked. We should all try harder to include diverse voices in our press releases, blogs and multimedia content, giving a broader range of academics the opportunities to showcase their expertise. We could go further and influence policy at an institutional level to include female voices in all such content. Besides strengthening your organisation, you’ll be providing a much-needed service for journalists by helping them increase diversity in their stories. 

Three years ago, science reporter Ed Yong wrote about his attempt to fix the gender imbalance in his stories, spending more time searching for female researchers to interview. He says it takes time, but not too much time: quantifying it as around 15 minutes per article, and arguing his journalism benefits from the inclusion of new voices and fresh perspectives.

Likewise, recent research in Nature Human Behaviour showed that when shortlists for jobs in male-dominated fields were extended, female candidates were more likely to be included and considered for the role. It was a relatively simple, easy way to broaden the pool and increase women’s opportunities.

Where possible, we should step back to look across internal and external communications at how focus is spread. If we see imbalance, we should try harder to address this and improve opportunities for female researchers. One way to help achieve this is by including first authors, Ph.D. students and early career researchers. As well as keeping an eye out for talented academics who are good at communicating, we should endeavour to train those who are less confident. And if your organisation runs leadership or similar training, can you use your influence to ensure more women are included, or that courses just for women are added?

Others are taking the initiative to promote women in science, which can serve as inspiration for all of us. For example, the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA) and the InterAcademy Partnership published Profiles of Women Scientists in Asia in 2018. Their committees continue to work towards achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, particularly in science and engineering. They hope that these women will become role models for future generations of women in science.

The Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD)  exists to increase the participation and ensure recognition of women in developing countries in scientific and technological research, and increase understanding of the role of science and technology in supporting women’s development activities. They ran a survey on the impact of the pandemic on women scientists, and have stories from women scientists from developing countries about responding to COVID-19.

500 Women Scientists began as a grassroots organisation to speak up for science and for marginalised communities in science. More than 20,000 women of STEM and supporters from more than 100 countries have signed in support of 500 Women Scientists, pledging to build an inclusive scientific community dedicated to training a more diverse group of future leaders in science and to use the language of science to bridge divides and enhance global diplomacy.

Asia Research News was founded with the goal of diversifying voices in research news reports and ensuring the world heard from academics in Asia. We know many more groups, networks and events are also working to boost women’s voices and participation in sciences around the globe. We've compiled a partial list here and would love to hear about and share others you know of. Please contact us to let us know about informal and formal policies and initiatives in place to increase gender equality in your research communications, what you found has worked or even not worked, as well as any other programs you’ve found particularly useful or inspiring. We're at info [AT] and @researchsea.


Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 20 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.