Sometimes putting numbers on a problem brings it into perspective.
YouTube has a well-known problem with commenters. Now, a new study of science-themed YouTube channels shows just how extensive that problem can be if you’re a woman hosting a science show.
Researchers found that female hosts were more than twice as likely to receive negative comments and twelve times as likely to be the target of sexist ones.
Women host just 32 of the 391 most popular YouTube channels with a science, engineering and mathematics focus. That’s a problem, according to the study authors, because distorted media representation of science and scientists may tacitly discourage young girls from picturing themselves in these professions.
“I think the number one thing we should be doing is looking for ways to include other voices in communicating science,” said Will Grant, a senior lecturer at The Australian National University and co-author of the new study.
Lead author Inoka Amarasekara examined 23,005 comments from 450 videos spread across 90 channels, sorting each comment into one of six categories, including “hostile,” “appearance-based,” positive, negative, sexist, and neutral.
Amarasekara didn’t use automated tools to parse the comments. Instead, she assessed all 23,005 herself. Her immersion into the world of YouTube comments gave her new respect for female science communicators. “I can also only imagine how it must feel to be on the receiving end of certain kinds of hostility,” she said.
Her results were not entirely bleak. Female hosts actually received slightly more positive comments than their male counterparts. Amarasekara said some of the positivity stood out to her as much as the negative comments. (Her prescription for proper commenting etiquette is simple: “Make positive feedback a habit.”)
The study struck a chord with female science channel hosts. Vanessa Hill, who hosts the YouTube channel BrainCraft and is no stranger to gendered criticism. “In some ways, [the study] seems like it’s stating the obvious,” she said. “Of course, if you fall under any kind of minority group—whether that’s a woman in science, whether that’s a person of color—of course your comments are going to be worse…But having that data is something we’ve never had before.”
For Hill, YouTube is the most important platform for teenagers to engage with science and scientists, and she thinks it’s still worth being on the platform, even with the toxic comments. “It’s the main place for entertainment, for video in general for 14- to 17-year-olds,” she said. At that age, representation on YouTube makes an impression. “If they’re going on and not seeing women communicating science,” she added, they might not connect women with science.
“I think it’s really important that we represent ourselves on all different media platforms.”