WCSFP ’21: Female science presenters talk industry’s glass ceiling

A panel of science communicators, presenters, hosts and journalists gathered virtually at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers this week to discuss the glass ceiling that women face ...
December 2, 2021

A panel of science communicators, presenters, hosts and journalists gathered virtually at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers this week to discuss the glass ceiling that women face in the industry.

The panel discussed how science programming, and its audience, is stereotypically seen as largely skewing towards male viewers. Many on the panel were themselves inspired by figures such as David Attenborough and Bill Nye, and didn’t notice as many women working in these fields.

But new platforms are challenging the stereotype about who is watching science programming, the panel explained.

Emily Calandrelli, a host and co-executive producer on Emily’s Wonder Lab, said that 65% of her audience on TikTok identify as women, and nearly 70% on Instagram and Facebook. But Calandrelli said she still hears, in pitch meetings with producers and networks, that audiences won’t react as well to a solo female science host.

“There’s still this culture that we’re fighting that it just feels more natural for the male to take that role, and there’s still lots of gatekeeping in that world,” Calandrelli said. “(But) I do think there is an opportunity here, because there is this growing audience of women and girls that’s really excited about science, and I don’t see that in mainstream television just yet.”

Vanessa Hill, executive producer with BrainCraft Studios, said more diversity can be found in creators and audiences on TikTok and Instagram than television, because the platforms attract younger generations and have less barriers to entry.

Even on YouTube, Hill said, a presenter needs a professional camera, video editing experience and presenters often have to withstand harassment in the comments of their videos. But on newer apps like TikTok and Instagram, all presenters need are their phones.

“I think it’s really a myth that science audiences skew largely male,” Hill said. “I think it is still true on TV and that’s a much older demographic. But we have a new audience that’s more diverse, includes more female-identifying people and I think that’s something broadcasters and producers need to think about.’

Wildlife ecologist Rae Wynn-Grant said she also notices trepidation still from networks who believe it’s a risk to have a Black presenter on a science show. She said she’s frustrated as there’s no data to back up the idea that women or Black people won’t engage wide audiences for science programming.

“Sexism is what’s creating these barriers for a lot of our participation and causing networks to keep it safe and make all these excuses for excluding women,” Wynn-Grant said.

She added that the income she receives from science programming hasn’t made it something she can call a sustainable career. Wynn-Grant estimated that 90% of her money goes toward childcare, which is an issue particular to parents, but also she said, speaks to how little they’re paid.

Emily Graslie – another panelist and a science communicator, host and producer – has worked in the field for nearly a decade, long enough to be an inspiration for some of the other panelists, but has faced difficulty in gaining financial security from this work.

“It’s absurd that I feel like I have so much privilege, so much cachet, so much name recognition in this field, and if it’s hard for me for this, it is impossible to expect anybody on this panel or any women or under-represented minority group would be able to have enough money to keep themselves afloat while they spend the time to make a pitch [and] maybe get it picked up by a network,” Graslie said.

Both Calandrelli and Hill noted that TV work is the lowest-paying they take on, with the bulk of their money coming from social media sponsorship. TV largely works as a way to build followers for their social media platforms. Calandrelli added that television work often takes the most time and pays the least, compared to her work on other platforms.

“Either there’s something wrong with the budget model for TV or we should be hired to actually do more. Because it doesn’t make sense that an executive producer is getting royalties off things that we’re paid lower than a production assistant for,” Hill said.

Calandrelli added that a wage gap exists on YouTube in a way, in that she notices women in science programming are more likely to use their online platforms to talk about social causes, which always loses her followers. She’s noticed many of the top male science communicators don’t take this same risk.

On the other hand, Joss Fong, a senior editorial producer with Vox, noted that according to her channel’s analytics, just 13% of viewers identified as women. Fong said putting women on camera isn’t enough to tackle that disparity, which is an ongoing struggle for her and her team, as her channel often features and is run by women.

“There’s something about the interests that young women are socialized to have when they’re looking for content online, or the way these algorithms box people into certain types of content, something is happening where girls aren’t finding us to the scale that boys and young men are,” Fong said. “I feel like the problem is unfortunately so much bigger than any editorial decisions that we can make.”

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