Initiative Amplifies Voices of Women Scientists in News Media

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Women make up half the world's population -- but you wouldn't know it by reading the news.

Women's voices are systematically underrepresented in newspapers, TV, and print, with one 2016 study finding that men are significantly more likely to be quoted as "experts" while women are more likely to appear as "eye candy."

In late 2016, two female scientists -- Kelly Ramirez-Donders, Ph.D., and Jane Zelikova, Ph.D. -- decided to do something about it.

They launched a movement called 500 Women Scientists, which aims to increase the number of female scientists quoted in the media and invited to speak at scientific meetings, as well as to fight discrimination and anti-scientific viewpoints more generally.

Initially, Ramirez-Donders and Zelikova set a goal to collect 500 signatures. But within the first month, 10,000 women had signed up. Eventually, the cofounders officially started a nonprofit organization and launched a "Request a Scientist" database, designed as a one-stop shop for journalists and other members of the news media seeking more diverse sources for their stories.

Today, the Request a Scientist database contains more than 9,000 names -- and it's growing. Buoyed by their success, last year Ramirez-Donders and Zelikova launched a satellite organization called 500 Women in Medicine, which aims to bolster representation of female doctors and medical researchers quoted in the media and at medical conferences.

"One of the things that sparked this movement is there is lack of female representation of women in scientific fields," says Evi Abada, M.D., M.S., who is a resident physician at Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center and also serves on the leadership team of 500 Women in Medicine and 500 Women Scientists.

Now, says Abada, "we're trying to expand the database to include health care." Today, the database includes physicians, researchers, and clinical staff across medical disciplines, including HIV and infectious disease.

HIV researcher Zandrea Ambrose, Ph.D., was inspired to sign up for the database because she felt frustrated by the lack of female representation among HIV researchers quoted in the media -- despite the great work of many women working in HIV.

"I would like to dispel the notion that scientists in general are old white men in lab coats, not only for the general population but also for girls and young women, particularly women of color, who are contemplating a career in STEM," said Ambrose, who is an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The 500 Women in Medicine movement comes amid a flurry of online activist campaigns designed to dismantle preconceived notions that a doctor is a white man wearing a white coat. In two separate incidents in 2016, for example, black, female doctors had their credentials questioned by flight attendants and were prevented from helping sick passengers during an airline flight.

These incidents sparked an outpouring of frustration online, launching the hashtag #WhatADoctorLooksLike. Many black female doctors took to Twitter to post selfies, aiming to undermine social assumptions about what a doctor should look like.

Representation of women -- particularly women of color -- is especially important with HIV research, says Ambrose.

"Female scientists can provide a different point of view compared to men, particularly when it comes to vaginal or mother-to-child transmission of HIV and other health issues relating to women at risk for HIV infection or who are already [living with HIV]," she says.

"Perspectives on these issues may be better received by this population if coming from a woman," she adds.

For Abada, the main goal of 500 Women Scientists is to highlight the strength and diversity of the scientific field, and to encourage even more women and people of color to become doctors and scientists.

"We want to make science accessible, make it open, and make it available to everyone," she says.