Social Media in Practice

Social Media in Practice

Perspective from Carlos del Rio, MD, FIDSA
October 25, 2019
4 min read

Is social media reinforcing gender disparities among researchers?

Perspective from Carlos del Rio, MD, FIDSA
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Kelly Cawcutt, MD, MS
Kelly Cawcutt

Findings from a study that assessed the Twitter activity and followers of male and female researchers suggest that gender disparities may be reinforced by social media.

The study, which focused on health policy and health services researchers, found that men had a larger audience than their female peers regardless of their level of engagement, according to Jane Zhu, MD, MSHP, assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Sciences University, and colleagues.

Writing in JAMA Internal Medicine, Zhu and colleagues said “ample research” has shown that academic women in medicine face barriers to visibility and success. They investigated the issue further using social media, which can be a platform for research dissemination and engagement.

At IDWeek this year, Jasmine Marcelin, MD, and Kelly Cawcutt, MD, MS, infectious disease physicians and co-directors of digital innovation and social media strategy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, delivered a talk about leveraging social media for professional success.

“The authors are correct that gender disparities exist for women in medicine, and based on this research, this includes the level of influence on social media for women vs. men,” Cawcutt told Infectious Disease News. “Social media is a platform that encourages professional engagement and potential to increase an individual’s realm of influence, even in the setting of the noted disparities.”

Zhu and colleagues used publicly available data to identify the names and affiliations of the 6,442 speakers and coauthors who presented research at AcademyHealth’s 2018 Annual Research Meeting. This meeting is “the largest academic meeting for health services research,” according to the study. The final analysis included 3,148 health service researchers, of whom 53% were women and 47% were men.

When the researchers looked at all conference participants, 29.5% of women and 28.9% of men were on Twitter. Among those with faculty positions, 33.3% of women and 32% of men were on Twitter.

Women in the study had used Twitter for fewer mean years compared with men (4.5 [2.5] vs. 5.1 [2.6], P < .001), but the number of mean original Tweets per year were similar between genders (70.8 [112.7] vs. 98.1 [208.9], P = .06). The researchers also observed that women and men followed a similar mean number of people (332.4 [480.6] vs 375.3 [655.9], P = .68).

But women had a mean of 567.5 followers and men 1,162.3 (P < .001), suggesting that women have substantially less influence on Twitter, Zhu and colleagues said. The researchers also found that women were more likely than men to follow women, and that men had more followers than women regardless of their level of activity.


The mean likes per year received by women’s tweets numbered 315.6 and the mean retweets per year were 207.4. Men received 577.6 mean likes and 399.8 mean retweets per year. Women’s tweets also generated fewer likes and retweets per tweet (3.8 [4.8] likes vs. 4.5 [4.8] likes and 2.4 [2.2] retweets vs. 3.1 [3.4] retweets).

“The research and ideas of women are important and can help advance health policy and services — and all fields — but lack of parity of their influence may result in less impact and dissemination of their work,” Cawcutt said. “It is critical to decrease bias and disparities in all professional realms, including who we follow on social media, as it helps improve diversity of voices in the field, which is critical to drive innovation through different perspectives and ideas.”

Zhu and colleagues observed the most disparity among full professors.

“Although it may be an effective way to gain professional visibility and career advancement opportunities, in this study, men had a greater Twitter audience compared with their female peers,” they wrote. “Our findings — that women’s voices on Twitter appeared to be less influential and have less reach than men’s — suggest that these forums may do little to improve gender parity and may instead reinforce disparities.”

According to Cawcutt, there are ways individual researchers and clinicians can help close the disparity gap.

“Make sure you follow a diverse group of people in your field — different ages, ethnicities, genders and professional roles. Men can help close this gap by intentionally following more women and sharing lists of handles of #womeninmedicine to follow with a tweet on #FollowFriday. Men and women should be amplifying the work and comments of women via retweets — ideally with a comment highlighting the importance of the work or expertise of the woman,” she said.

“Of particular note, with the noted increased influence of men in this study, engaging #HeForShe colleagues to help amplify women could be very powerful. Finally, for women with potentially less followers and influence, learning and employing best practices for social media posting, such as using visual abstracts, including hashtags, tagging others and providing links, may help improve the reach and dissemination of work.” – by Marley Ghizzone


Zhu JM, et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2019;doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.4027.

Disclosures: Cawcutt and Zhu report no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.