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Lean in and Listen: Gender Differences in Science Communication

April 13, 2022
by Margaret Hankins

I grew up watching Bill Nye in my science classes. It was always a treat for us, a chance to take a break from lectures and watch a fun episode of TV under the guise of learning. My best friend at the time admired Neil DeGrasse Tyson so much that she wanted to be an astrophysicist. For us, science was at its most accessible and most entertaining when it was delivered by a talented communicator. Sitting in a lecture, reading an article, doing my homework, didn’t make me fall in love with science. It was passionate, engaging science communicators. They made me want to leave the classroom to do my own science. In high school, I volunteered at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. While I wasn’t as knowledgeable, seasoned, or as confident as Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, I had the opportunity to be more patient than the format of a TV show or a lecture allows.

It wasn’t just the format that differed but who was delivering the message. I was a Black girl, not even an adult. Sometimes I had the answers to a visitor's question, and sometimes I’d say “That’s a great question, let’s look it up together.” I wasn’t an expert. I was someone enthusiastic about science who wanted to talk.

Research shows that this “relatability” aspect of science communication is crucial. One study showed people can hold two conflicting opinions about controversial topics: They can be aware of and accept the opinions of experts, and they can adopt the opinion held by their community or a group of their peers. So when experts are more accessible — as both members of the community whom we trust because of their expertise and their membership in our social group — we can communicate more effectively. This is why we need to make sure our science communicators are diverse and representative of the community they’re speaking to.

An analysis of Ask Me Anything (AMA) threads on the popular messaging board site Reddit found that female scientists wrote longer responses and received more positive comments compared to male scientists. This difference was reflected in people’s responses even if the gender of the commenter was unknown or unclear to readers. Other studies have shown that female doctors exhibit more “partnership behaviors,” such as working with the patient to make health decisions, encouraging the patient to paraphrase information they have learned, and discussing the patient’s concerns.

This concerted effort to listen to patients is likely one factor that contributes to findings that male and female patients treated by female physicians have slightly lower mortality rates following heart attacks than when treated by male physicians. Similarly, a Canadian study found that female physicians generally have a lower mortality rate among patients. These and similar studies consider behavioral differences among male and female physicians as a source, finding that women spend more time reading electronic health records, better equipping them to care for patients; patients speak more to female physicians and disclose more information that may be pertinent to the care they receive; and female doctors seem to emphasize patient-centered care more. However, these behaviors take time. Female doctors spend about 33 minutes more reading the electronic health records and spend two more minutes per consultation than male doctors. At the end of the day, a female physician may be an hour “behind” her male colleagues — which can be perceived as not performing up to some standard, but shouldn’t the point be to prioritize better care?

Lastly, these different approaches to science communication can extend to talking to other scientists, as seen in research finding grants written by women are more readable and use more concrete words compared to grants written by men. However, this doesn’t translate to more grants being awarded to women or more funding for women;while this disparity is lessening, it is doing so gradually.

Although it seems women have been socialized to emphasize these positive and effective science communication skills, this doesn’t mean that their work is always equally valued. The Matilda Effect refers to the persistent and prevalent under-recognition of female scientists. In one study, research done by female scientists was associated with less scientific quality. A survey among general surgery residents found that 65 percent of female respondents reported gender discrimination, citing patients and patients’ families as the most frequent source of this discrimination.

It is clear women are already doing the vital, hard work of science communication, when talking to the public at large, when talking to their patients, and in grant proposals. We must find ways to teach this behavior to new physicians and science communicators as well as encouraging male colleagues to implement some of the effective communication techniques into their work. And we must also acknowledge that this work is often met with insufficient recognition and at times an outwardly hostile environment. We need to find ways to reward the work women are already doing as well as create an environment which receives this work warmly.

Submitted by Rick Harrison on April 13, 2022