Scientists are increasingly expected to engage with the public. At the same time, they face increasing hostility when they speak out. Female scientists, as a more frequent target of sexist hostility, fear being attacked and enjoy speaking out less than their male counterparts. The question arises: Is science communication really feasible for everyone in the current hostile environment? This short analysis focuses on female scientists as a subgroup of a large survey sample and how their assessment of public engagement differs from that of their male counterparts.
The expectation to communicate
In 2019, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research called for a cultural shift toward communicating science (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, 2019). The former Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, urged scientists to communicate their research continuously and classified communication as a central task for universities and research organizations (Karliczek, 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fact that scientists who communicate with the public face not only enthusiasm, but also hostility, especially from anti-science segments (Mede & Schäfer, 2020). Hostility ranged from hate messages, including threats via social media or e-mail (Arora et al., 2021; O’Grady, 2022), to real-life attacks (Makri, 2021; Nogrady, 2021). In response, the Federal Association of University Communication, together with the organization Science in Dialogue, has founded a contact point for scientists who have been attacked as a result of public engagement, called “SciComm Support” (scicomm-support.de). Here, researchers can find confidential advice, training and workshops on hostility directed toward scientists.
That such measures seem to be necessary, might make one ask whether science communication is really a job for everyone, or whether every scientist is able to communicate their work and deal with possible consequences. This short analysis focuses on female scientists. The majority of studies on scientists’ motivations and barriers to public engagement have found no gender differences in what prevents or motivates them to speak out publicly (Besley et al., 2018; Horst, 2013; Yuan et al., 2019). In most cases, lack of time, personal enjoyment or previous experiences were the most influential decision factors for both female and male researchers (Davies, 2008; Entradas & Bauer, 2019; Ho et al., 2020; Poliakoff & Webb, 2007). However, with rising anti-science sentiments and increased hostility toward scientists, fear of harassment may be an additional, as yet unexplored, barrier to public communication. Following experiences of harassment during the pandemic, female scientists report lower motivation and higher levels of anxiety about working in the scientific field as well as exposing themselves to public discourse (Gosse et al., 2021; Makri, 2021). Therefore, the purpose of this short analysis is to examine a possible gender effect of hostility following public statements as a scientist.
This study has three specific areas of interest: 1. Do female scientists perceive hostility to be more severe? 2. Do female scientists differ from male scientists in their attitudes toward science communication? 3. Are female scientists less willing to communicate their findings to the public? To answer these questions, we use data collected as part of a research project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf. The data was collected through an online survey of 4.207 scientists from a variety of disciplines, who have published at least one scientific paper in the last five years and are affiliated with a German university or research institution. The survey was conducted from November to December 2022.
How female scientists rate the severity of attacks
As shown above, communicating one’s findings publicly can have unwanted consequences for researchers, such as hate comments or threatening e-mails. Not every scientist may perceive the level of anti-science attacks to be equally severe, due to their uncontroversial research topic or a lack of negative experiences after having previously spoken out. Scientists were therefore asked how they perceive hostility against scientists in general. Respondents indicated whether they considered hostility against scientists to be 1. severe, 2. a serious problem, and 3. frightening. A comparison of means shows that female researchers consider hostility against scientists to be slightly more severe and more of a serious problem than men. The most striking difference occurred when asked if hostility was frightening, with female scientists being more frightened (M = 4.06, SD = 1.00) than male scientists (M = 3.78, SD = 1.11). Women in our sample therefore feel more anxious when thinking about hostility against scientists. Both female and male scientists assess attacks against their profession as a severe and serious problem, but the prospect of being attacked frightens female scientists more than male ones.
This could be related to sexism in science hostility. Female researchers face hostility due to their gender after speaking out in journalistic media (Gosse et al., 2021; Jane, 2018; Veletsianos et al., 2018) as well as online media (Amarasekara & Grant, 2019; Cambronero-Saiz et al., 2023). Women in general report higher levels of distress after being harassed online, indicating a different quality to the attacks, compared to those directed at men (Fox et al., 2015; Pew Research Center, 2014).
To answer the question of whether female scientists perceive hostility to be more severe: Female scientists do not find hostility against scientists considerably more severe and serious than their male colleagues, but the prospect of being attacked does evoke more fright in women. Since emotions are a considerable driving force of attitudes on intention and behavior (Otto, 2021), this might also be visible in general attitudes toward public engagement, discussed in the following section.
Female scientists’ attitudes toward public engagement
A Swiss survey of scientists found no gender differences in attitudes toward public engagement (Crettaz von Roten, 2011). This may be due to the fact that attitude was operationalized more differentiated, e.g. as views on the general duty of scientists to explain their findings to the public. In our study, attitude toward public engagement was measured two-dimensionally: a rational-cognitive (good or bad) and an emotional-affective dimension (comfortable or uncomfortable). That way, male and female respondents show significant differences in their attitudes. On a 5-point-scale, varying from bad (1) to good (5) as well as uncomfortable (1) to comfortable (5), female scientists on average rate public engagement as slightly worse (M = 3.69, SD = 0.86) than male scientists (M = 3.81, SD = 0.84). Regarding mean values, both male and female scientists evaluate science communication as generally leaning toward the positive end. Political enforcement of public engagement activities might have influenced this assessment (un)consciously. A comparison of earlier and more recent scientist surveys demonstrates a trend toward increasingly positive attitudes toward science communication. While engagement activities were previously described as “light” and “fluffy” (The Royal Society, 2006, p. 11), unimportant, and poorly regarded inside the community (Jensen, 2008), recent studies reveal a rather positive disposition, with some disciplines viewing science communication as an integral part of their profession (Entradas et al., 2019) and important in shaping public discourses (Ziegler et al., 2021).
From an emotional-affective perspective, female scientists evaluate engaging publicly as less comfortable (M = 2.86, SD = 0.90) than their male counterparts (M = 3.22, SD = 0.85). While both male and female scientists evaluate science communication generally more positively than negatively, they do not find it quite enjoyable, but women enjoy the experience far less. This aligns with the emotional contrast discussed in the severity assessment above.
Women do not only find attacks on scientists more frightening, but (possibly therefore), less enjoyable to speak out. As a more frequent target of sexist hostility, they fear being attacked and enjoy speaking out less than their male counterparts. By splitting into cognitive and emotional attitudes toward science communication, the previous results are mirrored and can be interpreted as indicating that female scientists perceive science communication as more unpleasant than their male colleagues due to a higher fear of hostility. Feeling comfort may be influenced by multiple factors. The fact that women feel less comfortable and have more fear of hostility allows the assumption that female scientists might have less favorable views due to negative experiences with public engagement. While they are especially frightened by the extent of hostility against women in their profession, it is less appealing to them to expose themselves to the public.
Do more fear and less comfort lead to differences in behavior?
Are female scientists less willing to communicate their findings to the public? Following a Norwegian population survey on online harassment, which found that although men and women were harassed equally frequently, women reported higher reluctance to continue voicing their opinions online after being attacked (Nadim & Fladmoe, 2021). However, this does not have to apply to male and female scientists in the same way. A more frightening estimation of hostility against scientists in combination with less comfort communicating publicly might not lead female scientists to behave differently to men. Evidence shows that some scholars invented coping mechanisms in case of harassment, e.g. blocking hostile users or e-mail addresses (Nölleke et al., 2023). Though, in the present survey, negative estimation might indeed lead female scientists to be more reluctant to engage with the public in the future. When asked how willing they are currently to speak out as a scientist in 1. journalistic mass media, 2. online media, and 3. at face-to-face events (e.g. Citizen Science), all three public engagement activities were answered differently by male and female respondents. Although one might see distinctions in the degrees of public visibility as well as public reactions between these three activities, female scientists were more hesitant to engage in either of them.
The greatest difference, however, was found in the willingness to express oneself in journalistic mass media, with female scientists less willing (M = 2.93, SD = 1.22) than male scientists (M = 3.25, SD = 1.23). One explanation is that women may be less willing to speak out due to a lack of experience and practice, as prior experience is a consistent predictor of willingness to communicate (Davies, 2008; Ho et al., 2020). Female scientists may have less experience through no fault of their own because they are less likely to be approached by journalists (Crettaz von Roten, 2011). Even when there are enough female experts on a topic, as is the case in Finland, for example, they are the less popular interview partners for journalists (Niemi & Pitkänen, 2017). Of course, this is not the fault of women, but it could explain their low willingness to speak out in journalistic media specifically compared to men.
Another explanation rooted in women scientists’ previous experiences could be related to the hostility discussed here. The above-mentioned over-proportional attacks on female scientists after speaking out in journalistic media may lead women to be more hesitant to speak out. Regardless of gender, it is also worth noting that the willingness to speak out publicly is generally lower than the mean value. The fact that presenting one’s findings in face-to-face events has noticeably higher agreement scores than communicating them via media outlets shows that those events may provide researchers with a greater sense of self-efficacy and control. As scientists report attacks after speaking out in both journalistic and online media, resistance to communicating via these media is greater for both genders than offline.
It is also worth mentioning that all questions presented here were not related to Covid-19 or any other comparable crisis where science was or is under similar scrutiny. Therefore, the results shed light on general assessments and reluctance to engage by scientists in our sample (although experiences of the pandemic might have biased respondents unconsciously).
The aim of this short analysis was to find out whether female scientists expect different reactions when communicating with the public and how this affects their future behavioral intentions. Female scientists in the present survey sample hold more negative views and expectations of what happens to them when they communicate their research, especially concerning their more intense fear of hostility, feeling less comfortable communicating and being more reluctant to speak out in the journalistic mass media.
In her statement, Anja Karliczek called for public engagement to be not only part of researchers’ everyday jobs but also institutionally recognized. Scientists who communicate ought to be granted reputational as well as career advantages. Beyond that, outlining science communication activities in research grant applications should positively influence the funding decision. (Karliczek, 2020) However, our results clearly show that female scientists face the disadvantages of being more frightened and (therefore) more hesitant to speak out publicly. Political decisions that equate increased public communication with advantages in academic careers thus create an environment in which women are disadvantaged, in addition to the already existing leaky pipeline in Academia (cpy, 2022).
Additionally, women scientists researching topics in the realm of gender and diversity face disproportionate attacks following public engagement (Gosse et al., 2021). This subgroup of female researchers, in particular, might avoid public statements in the future based on the present findings. Subsequently, other marginalized subgroups are likely to become a more frequent target of hostility and therefore withdraw from the public sphere. As a result, certain topics may gradually vanish and thus erase certain perspectives from public discourse.
As communication is increasingly considered part of a researcher’s job, group differences between scientists should be considered. In contrast to believing science communication is manageable for every scientist in every condition and of any social background, attention has to be paid to differences in attitudes and threats which may potentially hold them back, taking the rise in science hostility, targeting some groups more intensively, into account. In addition to this differentiation between male and female scientists, academic position or discipline may be considered when comparing scientific segments and their approaches to public engagement.
A more in-depth understanding of female scientists’ experiences with harassment is needed to further understand how to protect them while speaking out. For example, how attacks reach them (via e-mail, via online comments, etc.) and what those messages entail. Institutions as well as platforms were called out during the pandemic to provide emotional support and implicate measures to block hostile users immediately after attacking an expert. Scientists themselves reported that during the pandemic, they would feel better equipped and more safe, if they could bank on the support of their institution and or media platforms like Facebook and Twitter/X in protecting them when faced with a public controversy or online harassment. (Economist Impact, 2022)
In calling on scientists to communicate more and more, the possible negative consequences, such as harassment or subsequent career disadvantages or the invisibility of issues when refusing to communicate, should prompt policy makers as well as scientific institutions not only to take protective measures for scientists, especially those from marginalized groups, but also to reflect on the why, how, when, where and cost of public engagement.