Lauren Morello Examines Twitter and Sexism in Science

Lauren Morello
Lauren Morello Chris Maddaloni

When biologist and Nobel laureate Tim Hunt made spectacularly sexist remarks in a public forum, Twitter was there. When a scientist for the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission appeared on TV in a shirt adorned with images of scantily clad women, Twitter was there. In these moments and many others, social media has offered a visible and sometimes volatile platform for decrying sexism in science. Some such online discussions inspire memorable hashtags—#distractinglysexy, #shirtstorm, #addmaleauthorgate—and they can provide a sense of solidarity for women scientists, writes Lauren Morello, U.S. news editor for Nature. Twitter, she writes, is a “megaphone” that amplifies the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard. And, Morello says, the platform has helped make people more aware of the challenges that sexism poses for women in science.

Although some Twitter firestorms centered on sexism in science have spurred public apologies, women scientists who speak up about sexism in their field can face a “vicious backlash,” sometimes to the point of rape threats or death threats, Morello writes. In “We Can # It,” published in Nature on November 12, 2015, she examines what fuels Twitterstorms in science, the consequences of social-media activism about sexism, and how scientists can protect themselves from retribution for expressing their views publicly. To report the story, Morello sifted through thousands of tweets, spoke with women who had been involved in social-media conversations about sexism in science, and tracked down experts—from feminist scholars to communication experts to network analysts.

As Morello writes, discussion of sexism in science is not new. Its presence on social media is what has changed. She quotes geobiologist Hope Jahren: “ ‘Guys have been wearing girly shirts forever,’” [Jahren] says. “ ‘The women around them have been rolling their eyes and going home and saying, “What a buffoon. I’m so sick of this crap.” They’ve been doing it in the women’s room and doing it in the coffee room.’ But now, Jahren says, ‘Twitter is that thought under your breath.’” Here, Morello tells TON editor-at-large Jeanne Erdmann the story behind her story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Your feature spans events that unfolded over 18 months or so. What finally made you decide to write about women scientists on Twitter?

Brendan Maher, Nature’s features editor for biomedicine, and I had been looking for an excuse to work together. We’re both deeply immersed in Twitter and Facebook. Nature has people in London who handle the bulk of social media, but Brendan and I cover social media during U.S. hours. In the summer of 2014, we found a lot of interesting discussions on Twitter about women in science, and noticed a community building up. He and I spent a lot of time that summer talking about how feminism seemed to be—and I don’t want to trivialize this—having a moment on social media. We thought there was this science-y corner of it, and thought there was an interesting story for us. I signed up to do it.

How did you get started?

For a while, we had some trouble trying to figure out how to take it from an idea, or topic, to a fully formed story. We spent a lot of time talking about who we thought was interesting and influential, and looking at more general coverage of feminism and how it’s playing out on the Internet. For example, Amanda Hess had a really great story in Pacific Standard in 2014 about being a woman on the Internet and being harassed. It had this really great first-person beginning, and I remember just loving that story, because it was such a specific experience, but she took you through it and you got it. I had that story in the back of my mind as some newsy things kept happening. Nature covered some of these hashtags. We have a column called Social Selection that looks at what scientists are discussing on social media; Corie Lok, who edits that column, commissioned pieces on #addmaleauthorgate and #prettycurious.

At one point I had a list of about ten key hashtagged incidents that I was working from. And I knew that even after compiling that list I was probably missing some relevant Twitterstorms. My list included all three major Rosetta hashtags (#shirtgate, #shirtstorm, #scishirt), #addmaleauthorgate, #girlswithtoys, #dontaskalice, and #distractinglysexy. And then when I was really intensively writing, #astroSH emerged and became an active, influential hashtag.

That list is basically chronological, by the way. Brendan and I were talking about doing something on what we dubbed “feminist science Twitter” even before Rosetta. And then over a couple of months the next spring, April to June, #addmaleauthorgate, #girlswithtoys, #dontaskalice, and #distractinglysexy happened. It was clear that someone was going to write the story I’d been imagining—and I wanted it to be me.

But we couldn’t get beyond this idea that I was going to have to talk to a lot of people, and we still didn’t have a way to focus, so basically we let it marinate.

How did you keep the idea going in the meantime?

When I had some free time I’d think about it and do some reading, and Brendan would send me articles he thought were germane. By early 2015, events started to clarify for me. But Tim Hunt was the event that tipped the scales, because that’s the first of these hashtag events [#distractinglysexy] that jumped the fence beyond the science media and became a general news story. And it suggested to us that this was only going to keep getting bigger and that we had hit a critical mass.

At that point I knew how I wanted to focus things. We decided that this was going to be a combination of two classic story types that Nature does: an emerging phenomenon that scientists are still trying to understand and grapple with, and a classic community story about the culture of science.

I spent a lot of time diving into journals trying to figure out how to make the emerging-phenomenon part of the story work. I found that nobody was studying things that were exactly what I was writing about, but there was overlap. So I ended up talking to a lot of communications researchers who were studying Twitter and hashtags and online discourse generally. I talked to a lot of scholars who look at feminism and the media. I dipped into network analyses. I found myself biking over to the American University library, because Nature has tons of journal subscriptions, but we don’t have access to tons of journals about communication or feminist media theory.

How did you figure out how to synthesize all of the different aspects of this story?

It really was an exercise in brainstorming. I had the sense writing it that this is something that I wouldn’t have been able to do before I’d been editing for a couple of years, because editing has given me a better sense of structure and it has helped me to think about stories more analytically, as opposed to instinctively. I also think being an editor made me a little more ruthless about leaving stuff out. I’m used to that.

What was harder was figuring out which tweets to use in the story. For those I had a lot of choices. I had a really fun night looking back through #distractinglysexy because I wanted to make the point it’s not angry mobs of women with virtual torches and pitchforks. A lot of it is kind of frustration and black humor.

How did you find sources?

[To find experts] I did targeted Google and Nexus searches and looked through journals that seemed like they might be relevant. And I’d go down one of those rabbit holes where I’d find a news story and a journal article and I’d follow the references. And then some of the people that I spoke with were good about suggesting other folks. I probably contacted about 20 people and ended up speaking to somewhere between 12 and 15 total.

The easiest people to find were the participants in the Twitterstorms. I thought this was a useful place to start, and it would probably [be informative to] any people I was talking to who were studying this in a theoretical way.

What method did you use to sift through what must have been thousands of tweets across multiple Twitterstorms?

This was maybe the hardest and most annoying thing. I was interested in how these things started, and Storify generally tends to look at these events once they really get going. For the majority of searches, I used the advanced search on Twitter a day at a time. That allowed me to zero in on particular hashtags or chunks of time. It wasn’t as granular a search tool as I would have liked, but it was free.

I asked communications researchers that I’d interviewed and discovered that it’s much easier to study a hashtag when it’s going on, because there are all kinds of things you can do to scrape tweets from Twitter. But looking back at hashtags that have already happened is either time-consuming or expensive. We have people in-house who are capable of programming and writing a script to scrape data, but you only have access to something like six percent of Twitter’s archives if you do that. I couldn’t write the story without knowing that I’d seen most of a given hashtag.

There’s a big demand for this kind of data for use in marketing, so the cost of purchasing archival hashtag data was just astounding. We did end up buying the data on the three Rosetta hashtags to make the graphic that appears in the story. But that happened well into the editing process. We explored buying a broader set of hashtag data for reporting purposes, but it would have cost several thousand dollars to get what I wanted—[it was] roughly $1,000 for the data on those three hashtags. But I think that the graphic really added an extra dimension to the story. We also made the hashtag data available to readers online so that people could explore the Twitterstorm in as much detail as they wanted.

I hope to God there’s some better way to do this for the next person who tries to write a story like this.

How did you handle interviews with the women you found on Twitter, especially your one anonymous source?

I approached this knowing it was sensitive, especially when I was calling some people that I knew had gotten death threats, and it wasn’t something where I was going to press very hard if somebody told me that they didn’t want to talk about it. People either wanted to talk or they didn’t; I was surprised at how many people wanted to talk.

Here at Nature, we have pretty strict rules about granting anonymity, but when you are talking to somebody who has a reasonable fear of harassment from being named, I think that was a relatively easy call. In this case I talked to the person off the record about using some of the source’s story and about clearing quotes. Brendan and I spoke about it; he knew the person’s identity, which helped. We talked about why the person wanted to be anonymous, and whether it would add something to the story. We were able to verify the person’s story just by looking around.

The person had experienced public harassment but didn’t want to be named in the story for fear of restarting that. We were very careful about guarding the person’s identity. We didn’t put anything in email; we only talked about it over the phone. I put a big note in my fact-checking document noting that Brendan and I know who this person is, and if there were any questions to ask us.

How did you plan the story’s structure?

I wrote a really loose outline that ended literally with a sentence that said, “And then a miracle happens here,” because I hadn’t figured out what the ending was. I sent that to Brendan and he rejiggered it and sent it back to me. I looked at it and thought, “I can see why he did that but I hate it.” Brendan suggested that we should go from the nut graf right into some of the research trying to make sense of Twitterstorms—Brooke Foucault Welles’s research on the #ferguson hashtag, and the SAFE study of sexual harassment and assault at field sites—before diving back into examples of science Twitterstorms and scientists’ personal experiences with them.

The big breakthrough was Brendan suggesting that I really walk people through a Twitterstorm by taking a step back after the nut graf to explore [the Twitterstorm around] Rosetta—and then jump from there. I think what we eventually realized was that we had to really lay out what a Twitterstorm is, in a more basic way, before introducing readers to researchers trying to understand the phenomenon.

That was a helpful decision. This story was tricky to organize. By the time I started writing, I had narrowed my list of science Twitterstorms to three examples that I would include in the story (Rosetta/#shirtgate, Tim Hunt/#distractinglysexy #addmaleauthorgate). But I also had to wrap in a lot of theory, from different areas of research—network analysis, communications research, feminist media studies, and social psychology.

The other challenge was giving readers a sense of what a Twitterstorm is: how a handful of tweets can give rise to a fast-moving discussion with hundreds or thousands of people chiming in. I teased this a bit in the lede by sketching out Fiona Ingleby’s experience. Stepping back to go through the Rosetta shirt controversy chronologically really helped to ground readers in the Twitterstorm phenomenon, which is pretty new. That prepared them for the sections that dive into all that theory about why Twitterstorms arise and what they mean.

We probably went through five distinct drafts, but after the third one it was just a lot of tweaking.

There was a lot of factual background to weave into the story. How did you balance storytelling and exposition?

We tried to spread the theoretical stuff out so that it wasn’t just a wall of communications theory and to use the anecdotes to illustrate or raise some of the theoretical points. I was very certain that I wanted to use a lot of tweets verbatim because I didn’t want to just describe these conversations; I wanted to let the women speak for themselves, and I wanted to quote from these conversations to give a sense of the tone. There were some quotes that were signposts for me—Hope Jahren saying, “Twitter is that thought under your breath.” When I heard that in the interview it was just like the lightbulb went off.

What were the biggest challenges along the way?

Going through the tweets was a challenge, but it was also something that I knew that if I just spent enough time on it, I was going to prevail. I think there was a point when I was sitting down to write the first draft after I’d done so much reporting and talking to people who were studying these things in so many different ways, that I had the classic freak-out, worrying about whether I could tie everything together. Brendan was very good at saying, “Nope, I think you’ve got this.”

We’re both stupidly busy, and there was a point where, to keep the story on track, we absolutely had to look at it on a given day, but we both had so much stuff going on. The only time we had to look at it was 10:30 at night, so we made a plan. We each poured a drink, Brendan broke into the Halloween candy at his house, and we sat there on the phone, because we had to get the story to London in the morning.

What about the aftermath—did you receive any letters or calls?

One of my sources was really concerned that I was going to get blowback. She called me when the story was in the final stages of editing and gave me some tips to make sure my online accounts were safe. I appreciated it. Brendan was also a little worried. I like to think I’m Internet savvy. Everything was set up that way anyway, but I went through and did kind of a security audit and made sure all my accounts were locked down.

The response was pretty much positive. There were some people who didn’t like the story, but it was all very civil disagreement and it seemed like most people appreciated it. Ginny Hughes mentioned it on Science Friday in the news roundup and it got some nice links. Some people … thought there was a larger story about sexism that we should have done, or didn’t understand why we focused in on Twitter, or just didn’t understand why it was worthy of coverage in Nature—that sort of thing.

I was pleased that things turned out well, although after writing this story I was acutely aware it’s not a given when you’re writing about this kind of thing.

Will you revisit this topic?

I’ve been editing most of our coverage of sexual harassment incidents that have emerged in recent months, and a lot of the discussion [about] this has been centered on Twitter. I think it’s pretty clear this is an emerging phenomenon, so I think it’s worthy of attention going forward.

I was very happy when it was done. I felt like it was worth it, and now, six months out, I’d love to write another feature.

A glimpse behind the scenes:


Jeanne Erdmann
Jeanne Erdmann Carl Erdmann

TON co-founder and editor-at-large Jeanne Erdmann is an award-winning freelance health and science writer based Wentzville, Missouri. Her stories have appeared in Women’s Health, Discover, Slate, Aeon, The Washington Post, Nature Medicine, Nature, and many other outlets. She is on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Follow her on Twitter @jeanne_erdmann.



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