Raising awareness of female researchers in Australia

15 August 2019 | Cancer Council NSW

Written by Dr Amy Vassallo and Gabriella Tiernan

Bias exists in many aspects of our culture. Gender bias is a significant issue which permeates our media, entertainment and other sources of popular culture that are widely consumed. This means there is a lack of diverse female voices being heard and perpetuates an unequal picture of womens’ contributions in many fields, including the health and medical research sector. As a result, gender bias extends to some of our most trusted or common sources of information.

While once considered a less reliable source of information, Wikipedia has evolved its editing and peer review protocols, resulting in the platform becoming one of the most ubiquitous sources of information available on the internet. But did you know that of the 136,095 active English-speaking wiki editors, just 16% are women? And only 18% of Wikipedia’s 1.6 million biographies are about women and of those just 3.5% are focussed on women in science or related fields!

What does this gender divide mean for Wikipedia and beyond? If articles on prominent women are missing from the world’s most popular encyclopaedia, it skews public perception of their contributions. If we can address this inequality, more female scientists will get the recognition they deserve for their work and the role it has played in shaping the world around us. This also has flow on effects for their likelihood to be approached for future opportunities.

The impact doesn’t stop at those currently in the sector. More visibility around top female scientists has a cascading effect, right down to the grass roots level. Over the last few years, Australia has had a strong early education focus on STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) promotion, specifically making it more accessible and appealing for young girls. The more we can expose these budding female scientists to the many amazing industry role models around Australia, and their career trajectories, the more likely they will consider pursuing and maintaining a scientific career themselves.

So, what can we do to change such systemic bias? Last month, Franklin Women held its first Wikipedia Edit-a-thon for Women in Health and Medical Research, working to increase the visibility of women in STEMM on Wikipedia. The event had 40 attendees from across the sector who added over 14,800 words of notability to Wikipedia for Australian female scientists. 25 new articles were added for notable female scientists whose contributions were previously not visible on Wikipedia. While not without its challenges, we had an amazing, rewarding day meeting other like-minded women in our sector and learning and promoting the achievements of others.

Increasing general awareness of the gender bias that exists in online information is a great start, but what else can we all do to help?

As a consumer, you can show your support for research that you appreciate. Use your voice through social media and within your own personal and professional networks to support the work that you feel is important and impactful. For example, you could Tweet, like and share the research of scientists from diverse backgrounds and sectors to increase their visibility and the impact of their work.

As a researcher, it’s important that you are actively involved in communicating your research contributions through some non-traditional mediums, like online blogs, newsletters or news articles. This will not only help to showcase your research to the public, but also build your online research presence (which could someday be critical for supporting the development of your own Wikipedia page!).