Opinion: What We Can Take Away From the Instagram OP-ED


Disclaimer: In the interest of not being hypocritical, FemSTEM will NOT link the article in question (though the title will be mentioned), nor mention the author by name.  That information has gone around enough within the science community, and we do not want to unintentionally promote attacking the article and, more importantly, the author in question.


A lot of anger, confusion, and debate was stirred up in the science community on March 15th, 2018 when Science Magazine published an article entitled: “Why I Don’t use Instagram for Science Outreach”.  While the title sounded as though it would be a thoughtful opinion piece on why Instagram may not be the best avenue for science communication, the article instead read as a bitter attack peace for many.


It’s easy to see why this article was read that way.  The article compared women and suggested that one method of science communication was more valuable to another’s.  It also had bitter sentences throughout the paragraphs.  


The author even admits to her bitterness in the article by saying: “Instead of cheering on Instagram’s dynamic and vibrant #scicomm women, I felt an increasing bitterness with each post I came across […] I realized that I am not bitter toward the authors of these posts […]  I am annoyed that the majority of the posts seem to celebrate a very narrow representation of femininity, my real bitterness comes from the systemic challenges that these posts are working to address …”


As of March 17th, both the author and Science Magazine came out with statements apologizing for the article, though the article can still be readily found.  


With that said, there are things we can learn from the article and the surrounding controversy; it just might not be what the article initially intended.



Don’t Pit Women Against One Another



As mentioned previously, the article directly compared two women.  It compared popular online science communicator Samantha Yammine to an unnamed professor the author knew in person.  


“I liken the many hours that Science Sam spends on her Instagram content to the volunteer work a female professor in my department put into organizing a summer program to introduce teens from underrepresented communities to biomedical engineering.” — Direct Quote from Article


As far as any reader can tell, these women have similar mindsets and goals — they just go about their science outreach in different ways.  Even if this was not the case — there is nothing healthy about comparing two people and their achievements.  



Dr. Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said in an article for Psychology Today: “If we use others as a benchmark to evaluate ourselves, that creeping twinge of jealousy may undermine our ability to truly cherish the good things that come to others.”  


Carr then goes on to remind her readers: “Over time, things may even out, and a friend’s success may enable him or her to support and make opportunities for others (including you).”


We want to remember that, instead of bringing someone else down, we want to raise one another up.  In the long run, that will provide better, more positive, and longer lasting effects in the community.  We want to remember, too, that this is all of our community.  Tearing someone down, intentionally or not, disrupts the system of the entire collective.  This was clear in the reaction to the Instagram op-ed on Twitter.  It created anger.


It is important to note, though, that out of that anger did come some good.  Many fellow scientists and science communicators came to Yammine’s defense and support in the wake of the article. 



It’s Okay To Have an Opinion, but How You Present it is Extremely Important


It is, by no means, a bad thing to have a negative opinion on Instagram or social media in general.  It can be argued (and has been) that social media can be bad for the general state of human health.  Of course, however, everyone reacts to social media differently, and everyone interacts with social media differently.  


There is no fault with the author for not thinking that social media is not an effective or good way to go about science communication.  The fault lies with how it was presented.


Samantha Yammine was used as an example of science communication through social media from the very first sentence of the Science article.  Afterwards, Yammine was mentioned by her social media persona three more times in the short, 600-word article.  The entire time, Yammine seemed to be presented in a negative light.  


Because this article portrayed a negative opinion of a harmless activity, the usage of one example, and outright naming that example, read as an attack.  If the article was otherwise well-written and thought out, it was overcast by what came across as an attack.  


On another note, the article never had evidence that backed any of the author’s claims.  There are no links to studies or sources, and there was no research conducted to see if the act of science communication on Instagram could produce positive effects on the public.  It came across as completely baseless, and as a result, purely pessimistic and assaulting to those who enjoy and find good results from their social media usage. 


The world needs differing opinions, but those opinions must have structure and foundations, and they must be presented in a professional way.



We Can Learn From Our Faulty Judgment and From Other’s Errors


The reality is that a reputable online magazine should never have posted this piece.  The reality is that this op-ed never should have been penned the way it was.  To call it a ‘mistake’ may be being generous, as the article had been thought out by the author, and then read and edited several times by the employees of Science Magazine.


However,  with every negative experience can come a lesson.  That doesn’t make this okay — none of it was.  With that said, us — as the readers, the reviewers, and the critics — can use this to help ourselves become more aware of our own actions.  To use this as an example of what NOT to do.  To look at this and examine ourselves, our own motives, and use this to teach us how to lift someone up rather than to take them down.


Hopefully, Science Magazine will do as they say and will “examine [their] editorial process for these pieces moving forward” in a thoughtful and profound way.  We cannot count on that, however.  The only thing we can count on is how we react to situations like this, and how we move past this.


Samantha Yammine, who says she will be writing and submitting her rebuttal to an unknown magazine, has taken the entire situation in stride.  




Let’s all look at this as an opportunity to learn, and let the science community as a whole become stronger as a result.




Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.


Opinion: Why We Won't Ask Anyone What It's Like to be a "Woman in Science".


How many times have you read (or heard) the question: "What's it like to be a women in [insert male-dominated field here]?"


A lot?  Yeah, we have too.


A lot of fields are male-dominated, and this includes STEM fields to a high degree.  As an example I know from my personal life, my mother and my grandmother worked (or are currently working for) the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  This is a government agency, and it deals with airplanes, the locality of the within space and time, advanced technology such as radars, and much more.  This is a very male-dominated field today, and was even more so when my grandmother first started in the agency.


This is just a fact of life at this point.  Some fields are more dominated by men, and sometimes that can leave women behind.  Because it might be harder, or more rare, for women to make it into a field for one reason or another, it's almost natural to ask women in these fields "What's it like to be a woman in science?"  It can be a genuine question, but it can also be a very lazy question.


Here's why (so long as I run FemSTEM, which I plan to for a very long time) we won't ask the women we interview "What's it like to be a woman in science?"


It's Cliché and a Weak Question


A cliché is, by definition, is "a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought."


The question:  "What's it like to be a woman in science?" definitely fits here.


We're never going to know every woman's personal experience with being a woman in science.  Never.  And while it might be interesting to ask someone this personally, so that we can get a deep understand of their personal struggles or rewards from being a minority in the system, we all know the general idea behind it.  When it's asked as an interview question, you're generally going to get the same basic answer.  It's, of course, harder in most cases.  You'll maybe hear a generalized story about how a male co-worker (or some) may have bullied, or harassed said woman, or you may hear about other women telling the interviewee that she can't do it because she's a woman.


But here's the problem -- the key words her are generalized and basic.  Most of the answers you will receive will be the same answers that most other women are going to give you.


Let's face it; this is such a vague question.  A vague question is often times a weak one and is going to warrant a weak response.


If you really want to ask a variant of this question, it might be better to talk about the specifics of a situation in which sexism may have occurred, and then ask the interviewee if they can relate, or if they've experienced something similar.


No One Seems to Like That Question Anyway


A great example of being just plain tired with this question is the example of Actress Lucy Liu.


Actress Lucy Liu, probably best known for her role as Joan Watson on Elementary, has faced a similar dilemma as to what we've described here.  Back in October of 2016, the internet blew up when she asked that people stop asking her what it was like to be an Asian-American actress in Hollywood.  She is an actress who was accepted before the big push of diversity in the industry took place.


“I had this moment of, I was just thinking about it. I was just so glad I was accepted into this wonderful group because of my work, not because I am Asian, and now they’re trolling the fields for people who fit that. I want to be acknowledged for my work, not for my ‘fill in the blank,’” She told the New York Times.


And we don't want to acknowledge the women in STEM fields just because they 'fill in the [diversity] blank', either.  That's not what this website is about.  Though it focuses on a minority in the field, yes, we don't want to make it seem like the only reason we're acknowledging them is because they're women -- because we're not.


The goal of this website is to show more women (especially young women) how great STEM fields can be, and encourage them to take a part it in. Not to fill in a blank.


It Can Come Across as Borderline Sexist ...If Not Completely So


When you want to ask  <strong>"What's it like to be a woman in science?"</strong>, you have to ask something of yourself.


Are you really interested in what they do and who they are, or are you just interested in them because they are a woman in a male-dominated field?  If it's the latter, you may have a problem.  This can come across as sexist because you care more about their gender than what they do or who they are.


Women are people.  People work in science, and tech, and engineering, and math.  It's okay to showcase a woman in science who is successful despite the odds, and it's okay to have a woman-focused group.  It's also alright to talk about the fact that things just aren't fair in these industries sometimes.  But how much attention are you bringing to the woman part of the equation?   It can be a fine line.


And if this question wasn't already asked so often, maybe we would ask it from time to time.  But the bottom line is: it's just not an interesting question anymore.  If it ever was to begin with.



Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.