Today, I produce and host videos about science for a living. I started out making a show for Nova and PBS Digital Studios called Gross Science, and today I make a series for The Washington Post called Science Magic Show. When I was fresh out of college and working in a lab, I never would have believed that this is where I would end up. I have the responsibility and honor of helping people find wonder and excitement in nature, technology and medicine. I also get to nerd out about science all day. I’m not gonna lie: It’s a total dream job. And it wouldn’t be possible without YouTube.
YouTube has transformed the media landscape. Anyone from major entertainment companies to students with smartphone cameras can publish a video to YouTube — free. It has fundamentally changed the value and volume of video. In my field, it means anyone with a science story to tell has a chance to be a science star. (And for now, let’s set aside that very real accuracy issues that can accompany self-publishing on any platform.) As a result, the kids (and adults) of today have far more female role models in science. Through this lens, YouTube can be viewed as a marvelous force for democratizing science and education. But as you’ll see, it also has its problems.
Because of YouTube, more women in science than ever have large or growing audiences: Simone Giertz, PhysicsGirl, BrainCraft, The Brain Scoop, AnimalWonders Montana, Sally LePage, Alex Dainis, Crazy Aunt Lindsey, Hot Mess, Draw Curiosity, Neuro Transmissions, The Biologist Apprentice . . . the list goes on. There is even a community, called WeCreateEdu, that supports educational creators on YouTube from all walks of life. The community was founded by the host of SciJoy, another woman-led science channel.
Creators such as Simone Giertz, Emily Graslie and Vanessa Hill not only explore the intricacies of robotics, museum science or psychology in ways that are clear and compelling, they are also relatable people. The YouTube format allows these women to be powerful role models for the next generation because they demonstrate what a woman in science can (and must) be — not just a talking head, but a human with idiosyncrasies, frustrations and a sense of humor.
That said, it ain’t easy being a woman on the Internet, and being a woman communicating science on YouTube presents its own complications. A study that came out in 2018 in the journal Public Understanding of Science reviewed the 391 most popular science, engineering and math channels. They found that only 32 of them had a host who presented as female. On top of that, women presenters had more comments that were negative, sexist or about the host’s physical appearance.
This study really came as no surprise. I’ve received my fair share of abhorrent comments about my looks, my voice and my level of scientific expertise. My defense mechanism is to remember that if the comment is a personal attack, then the troll couldn’t find anything about the video itself to dislike. Even with this outlook, the most disgusting, violent comments still hurt. I would not blame anyone for deciding not to subject themselves to such abuse while simply doing their job.
I worry that as time goes on, YouTube will become an even less welcoming place for women in science. Each year, YouTube production and sponsorship models look more like those of traditional media. Digital production companies and established media entities are increasingly the gatekeepers of popular content on YouTube — they have the built-in infrastructure to propel new channels to virality. My fear is that these companies have bottom lines that dictate which channels or hosts will get funding, and which won’t. In a space where male hosts consistently have the biggest subscriber counts and bring in the most revenue, who does it make the most financial sense to sponsor?
Yes, I am a woman in science who has been well-supported by two established media companies, and for that I am grateful. But I may be the exception, not the rule. And this isn’t just a concern for women — people of color have an even harder time finding a place for themselves as science hosts on YouTube. While I can now name dozens of female science creators, I can think of less than 10 popular science or tech channels hosted by people of color.
YouTube has helped more young people find science role models than ever before. But while we’ve made great strides since the days of Ms. Frizzle and Dana Scully, it’s important to notice who is left out and who slips through the cracks.