Science and sexism: In the eye of the Twitterstorm

Lauren Morello in Nature:

Nature-hashtag-sexism-onlineWhen Fiona Ingleby took to Twitter last April to vent about a journal’s peer-review process, she didn’t expect much of a response. With only around 100 followers on the social-media network, Ingleby — an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Sussex near Brighton, UK — guessed that she might receive a few messages of support or commiseration from close colleagues. What she got was an overwhelming wave of reaction. In four pointed tweets, Ingleby detailed her frustration with a PLoS ONE reviewer who tried to explain away her findings on gender disparities in the transition from PhD to postdoc. He suggested that men had “marginally better health and stamina”, and that adding “one or two male biologists” as co-authors would improve the analysis. The response was a full-fledged ‘Twitterstorm’ that spawned more than 5,000 retweets, a popular hashtag — #addmaleauthorgate — and a public apology from the journal. “Things went really mental,” Ingleby says. “I had to turn off the Twitter notifications on my e-mail.” Yet her experience is not as unusual as it may seem.

Social media has enabled an increasingly public discussion about the persistent problem of sexism in science. When a male scientist with the European Space Agency (ESA) wore a shirt patterned with half-naked women to a major media event in November 2014, Twitter blazed with criticism. The site was where the first reports surfaced in June of Nobel Prizewinning biologist Tim Hunt’s self-confessed “trouble with girls” in laboratories. And in mid-October, many astronomers took to Twitter to register their anger and disappointment when the news broke that Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet hunter at the University of California, Berkeley, was found to have sexually harassed female subordinates for at least a decade. “I have been in [the] field for 15 years,” wrote Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. “It is my field now too & we are not going to do things this way anymore if I have anything to do w/ it.” Scientists studying the rise of social media are still trying to understand the factors that can whip an online debate into a raging Twitterstorm. Such events often have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences — for participants as well as targets. Sometimes this continuing public discussion prompts action: PLoS ONE is re-reviewing Ingleby’s paper, and its original editor and reviewer no longer work for the journal, for example. But women who speak out about sexism often face a vicious backlash, ranging from insults to threats of physical violence.

More here.