Natsuko Fukue
By on April 17, 2014 in Women
Read time: 5 minutes | No Comments

The media trial of a 30-year-old female scientist

Haruko Obokata is currently under scrutiny by fellow scientists for her controversial STAP cell research published in Nature. But it’s the media – especially the tabloids – who are giving her the sexist treatment.

When the time came, it was uncomfortable watching Obokata’s press conference (video in Japanese). The 30-year-old Japanese stem-cell biologist had been out of the public eye for more than two months since her first meeting with the media in January.

Back then the world had been shocked and delighted at the groundbreaking news published in Nature that this young woman had created Stimulus-triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency (STAP) cells, from which you could potentially grow any tissue in the body. It was hailed as the discovery of the century – but several weeks on, fellow scientists started to question the accuracy of her research and the actual existence of STAP cells, pointing out areas of plagiarism and poor data records.

In the end, her employer, the government affiliated research institute Riken, published a report which found her guilty of scientific misconduct. And now, having stayed silent for weeks, Obokata was once more standing in front of the flashing cameras, this time to defiantly defend her claim.

But viewers interested in the debate surrounding her research were disappointed. Despite efforts by some journalists and media outlets to focus on the science during the Q&A session, the press conference seemed to be all about Obokata herself, with tabloid and TV reporters shamelessly asking her irrelevant or improper questions. One particular low point was when someone asked her how long she had been wearing a kappogi apron (a quaint, domestic apron which had been her grandmother’s) in the lab instead of the usual white coat. She was also quizzed about how sick she had been exactly, referring to her recent hospitalization due to stress from this controversy.

The feminine persona

As I watched, I realised there was something about her, particularly the way she presented herself, that made me wonder how the audience perceived her.  She answered reporters’ questions calmly, with teary eyes and in soft, sweet tone of voice.  She had a rather innocent girly look – with her nicely curled hair and shiny pink lip gloss.

In fact, looking like an “atypical” researcher had been Obokata’s “selling” point when she first appeared in the press as a rising star in the science world. Because she was a young female scientist, a rare breed in the male-dominated world of research, both her employer Riken and the media, including major newspapers, sold her femininity to the world via her kappogi apron, her pink-coloured lab walls, her cartoon character stickers, her boyfriend, the Vivienne Westwood ring. It seemed that her appeal was destined to be a personal, as well as a professional, one.

After her initial press conference in January, articles in major newspapers that focused on these personal characteristics provoked wide criticism, especially from women on Twitter. One critical analysis, actually written by a male journalist, rapped them for having an “ossan” (middle-aged men) bias, obsessing about the fact that Obokata is a woman with a soft feminine side. In this piece, the journalist reflected that it is now so ingrained in reporters that a young female success story needs a fashion or love angle that they don’t stop to think whether it’s actually newsworthy or not.

I know this observation to be true, and not only of male writers. When Obokata was still the darling of the press, a female journalist friend confessed that she would also use catchy expressions based on her femininity if she were to write about Obokata, because they make good headlines.

Fall from grace

Of course, we can’t know whether Obokata intended to appear innocent or fragile, before the controversy and since. But what we do know is that people’s perceptions of her are now divided between men and women, and friends and foes.

Since her fall from grace, Japanese men on social media are more sympathetic towards her, while women tend to be sceptical. This comment, retweeted over 8,000 times, sums this divide up perfectly:

“Reading comments by women like ‘she obviously knew she was going to cry [at the press conference] because she wasn’t wearing mascara’ or ‘she was really playing on her feminine appeal, right down to her choice clothes’ makes me think women are so tough on other women. Meanwhile, men saying things like ‘I don’t know what STAP cells are, but I just want to hug her’ makes me realise that men and women are never going to understand each other.”

Many viewers of her press conference even likened her to an actress. For example, a freelance journalist wrote on the Huffington Post that he has never seen anyone so skilled in public speaking. She is “a genius” in that respect, he said.

 I must confess I also felt like I was watching a crafted performance, because every time she hesitated when answering questions she paused long enough for photographers to shower her with camera flashes, before carefully choosing her words. Every movement looked so perfect, except she seemed like a cute, fragile doll instead of a dignified researcher.

I was actually surprised by her manner because I expected her speech delivery to be more professional. I felt her presentation was only working to her disadvantage, as she was already setting herself up for criticism by not providing sound evidence to back her STAP cell discovery. In fact, when asked by a reporter if the STAP cell exists, she merely said, “It does!” in a girly student-like voice. This comment has since been mimicked by Twitter users.

In the end, after the press conference, voices on social media were largely neutral and supportive: according to a poll by Mainichi Shimbun, 16% of tweets supported Obokata, while 7% was critical and the remaining 77% did not give any specific judgement. Those who disapproved mostly argued that she should have provided scientific evidence to support her claims, which I think is a legitimate point.

But the tabloids weren’t nearly so kind. The next day, they splashed her picture on their front pages, slamming her as if she were the perfect prey. Nikkan Sports, for example, used a full close-up photo of her teary face with the headline “Obokata’s counter attack fails”. The picture, which is shockingly horrible, went viral on the internet. Another tabloid, Tokyo Sports, even dared to write about her breasts – at which point I couldn’t help thinking that this whole event had become mere entertainment.

Fighting bias

I was glad that  major national newspapers stayed away from personal stories and scrutinized her claims made at the press conference, but it was greatly disappointing that tabloids treated her like a sexual object, not a scientist. If she had been a man or an older woman, I believe this would not have happened.

Maybe the Japanese media were all too excited about the emergence of a young female researcher. It doesn’t help that Japan has so few female researchers, only 14% of the total according to the education ministry, therefore making it tempting for people to admire Obokata as the girl-next-door with a highflying career in a man’s world.

We don’t know if Obokata will appear in public again. But whether she does or not, I hope the media will learn to check themselves and run newsworthy stories that are free of gender bias.