Women in STEM

Female science video hosts face trolls on YouTube


Anthea Batsakis

A new study quantified the sexism rampant on YouTube for women in STEM creators. Here’s how we can better support them.

“Never read the comments!” As a young female writer, I’m often told to beware of the comments on social media when any of my articles are posted, and for a good reason. “Trolls” – people who post hate speech online – can make the internet an ugly place for women showcasing their work.

But it’s not always bad. Social media comments can also be supportive and provide an opportunity for the public to engage in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago.

Inoka Amarasekara – a science communicator who coordinated videos of inspiring women in STEM and entrepreneurship for ATSE – dove into the black hole of YouTube comments and emerged with a published paper.

She explored how female science communicators were unfairly treated on YouTube compared to their male counterparts by looking at more than 23,000 YouTube comments.

“It must feel incredibly rewarding for YouTube creators to encourage curiosity and discussion about science, and to have people engage with their content,” Ms Amarasekara said.

“I can also only imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of certain kinds of hostility and sexism. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the YouTube creators who endure that to pursue their goals.”

Published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, Ms Amarasekara found women who create science videos on YouTube generally face a tougher environment than men.

They elicit more comments per view than men and a higher proportion of critical comments. In fact, about 14 per cent of comments for female on-camera hosts were critical, compared to about 6 per cent for male hosts.

They also received far more comments about their appearance, or comments that were sexist or sexual.

On the other hand, female hosts received more likes and subscribes per view.

Here, Ms Amarasekara discusses her research and how we can better support women in STEM on the internet.

Was there anything in your research that surprised you?

When I first started scrutinising YouTube and popular channels, I was surprised by how few women there were in science-related YouTube videos and how they’re less visible. I wanted to investigate that gap and find out whether I could detect if audiences really do respond differently to science content by men or women.

I can also only imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of certain kinds of hostility and sexism. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the YouTube creators who endure that to pursue their goals.

Also, the comments that were analysed were the public-facing ones and there was no definitive way to tell if comments were being filtered.

I found it interesting how people could use words that on their own don’t mean much, but put together in ways that became borderline hate speech!

How can we be better allies to women in STEM on YouTube? 

It’s important to question the norms of what is considered “good” or “successful” if we want to promote diversity, inclusion and equity.

If you think someone is doing good work, let them know. When I come across something I enjoy on YouTube, social media or even in life in general, I try to engage positively by liking it, subscribing or following. It’s so easy to do!

And broadening what you read, watch and listen to is important. We need to actively look for different kinds of perspectives in our consumption of information and entertainment, perhaps a bit like research practice.

Do you think women in STEM should avoid making videos on YouTube altogether? 

Definitely not! But I think it’s important to acknowledge barriers or problems women face in order to take steps to overcome them.

YouTube presents a great opportunity for those who want to participate in science communication, with its global reach, huge earning potential and innovative career opportunities.

Given the under-representation of women in STEM in general, their lack of visibility and marginalisation around ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, physical ability and non-cisgender presentation in the STEM industries, there is a long way to go.

Diversity and inclusion is especially important to improve STEM practice to promote diversity in thinking and innovation.

And unless people actively participate, the status quo will continue.