We need to talk about media portrayals of women in STEM

We need to talk about media portrayals of women in STEM
Janne Bate

5 minutes

We need to talk about media portrayals of women in STEM

Strong female role models in film and TV can help change the world, but media representations of female scientists have long fallen short of the mark.

Through its representation of female scientists, the media has the power to either perpetuate the gender gap in STEM or help solve the problem. How it responds next will have real-world implications for years to come.

In 2019, women made up 24% of the UK STEM workforce, despite the country being 50.59% female.

The picture is even gloomier in tech. In just over a decade, female representation in the sector has barely nudged from a paltry 15.7% in 2009 to only 17% today. While these figures are common knowledge within the industry, the sheer extent to which STEM is male dominated still has the power to shock.

Given that science, technology, engineering, and maths are core building blocks of modern society — standing at the forefront of global challenges such as the pandemic response and the fight against climate change — the current lack of diversity in STEM is more than just an industry issue. It’s a societal and political issue.

Central to this is on-screen representation. TV and film have long been powerful mediums for social change, and the way female STEM characters are portrayed can directly contribute to viewers holding certain stereotypes of what a scientist can or can’t be. In other words, the media has the power to either perpetuate unconscious cultural biases or to help break them down.

Boosting female representation in STEM is more than just a question of ethics; all the evidence suggests that greater diversity drives innovation. When doors are unlocked for women, we all benefit. So what, as a society, can we do to ensure more talented women and girls see STEM as a viable, inclusive career option? And how can the media contribute to closing the glaring gender divide?


Taking stock of the wider problem


“We need all hands on deck, and that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.”

 Michelle Obama

We’ve all seen LinkedIn content about inspirational female scientists making waves in their fields, as well as the remarkable women leading the fightback against COVID-19. Though some posts can often appear as corporate lip service, most of the discourse is good-natured, purposeful, and points to a widespread commitment from both STEM businesses and individuals alike to fight gender inequality in STEM.

Much like the drive for racial justice and the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, bridging the gender gap largely hinges on raising the public’s awareness through visibility. But unless female scientists — both real and fictional — are firmly placed under the spotlight, there’s a danger that progress could stall.


Society’s problem

After all, the two main barriers to true gender parity in STEM are societal. Most notably, the workforce imbalance between the genders spans almost all careers, let alone those in STEM. Secondly, the public attitude towards science-based subjects and vocations remains largely ambivalent: according to a 2019 UK government survey, 47% think science is too specialised for most people to understand.

On the one hand, a cynic might argue that the UK educational system — in its teaching of STEM subjects, at least — is not properly preparing students (of all genders) to make waves in the world of STEM. On the other, the buck stops with the media, which has the power to change the public mood on any given issue.

It’s also worth mentioning one hugely important caveat: disparity among women. Women of colour and/or those from working-class backgrounds, for example, face significantly more barriers than their white middle-class counterparts. (Simply having a private school education offers pathways into the best universities and the kind of prestigious occupations that are largely closed off to the majority).

With all these political and societal hurdles in mind, the media can play a huge role in opening doors for women and other marginalised groups. But as one white paper astutely observes, “the people who create and distribute media are part of the same culture, and prey to the same subconscious biases as the rest of us."

Clearly, much more needs to be done to enshrine the idea that STEM is a viable career option for every girl with an interest in science. Without inspirational figures in popular culture, countless women (especially those from minorities and/or deprived backgrounds) stand to miss out.


A man’s world?

Ask the average person to name their favourite scientist, and they’ll more than likely list a male. Likewise, ask someone else to name their favourite male science figure, and you’ll probably receive instant responses pertaining to scientists firmly in the public spotlight (juggernauts like Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Richard Dawkins immediately spring to mind).

Ask someone to name their favourite female scientist, however, and there’s a good chance you’ll be met with a long, pensive silence. While well known by many, trailblazers like Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Bell Burnell simply aren’t as famous as their male contemporaries. (The fact that Franklin is often eulogised as “the forgotten heroine” says it all). Again, the traditional media certainly hasn’t helped matters in this regard.

In film, for example, depictions of female scientists have frequently reinforced gender stereotypes. According to a study conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, portrayals of STEM jobs in the film industry convey mixed comments and ideas to adolescent girls and women.

The study looked at STEM characters in film and television and concluded that the media largely reinforces the notion that scientists are white men. Male STEM characters outnumber female ones by 62.9% to 37.1%, while over 70% of STEM characters are white.

Film and television were also found wanting when it came to perpetuating the myth that certain scientific disciplines are inappropriate for women. Fewer women were portrayed as physical scientists (6.4% compared to 11.8%), computer scientists (8.6% compared to 11.5%), or engineers (2.4% compared to 13.7%) than male STEM characters.


If she can see it, she can be it

Thankfully, we are slowly seeing a shift in perceptions. Films such as 2016’s Hidden Figures have acted as watersheds for public understanding of female contributions within STEM — particularly from women of colour.

The film, which shone a light on the little-known yet pivotal achievements of three black female scientists working for NASA in the 1960s Space Race — Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — received widespread critical acclaim, including three Oscar nominations.

> Read about the extraordinary life of Katherine Johnson

Another positive can also be gleaned from the study mentioned earlier: though female representation is low, female STEM characters are just as likely as men to be portrayed as leaders in their fields. Even more encouragingly (and somewhat surprisingly), women in these roles were found to be depicted as equally competent and empowered and more intelligent than men.

As one notable example shows, the importance of media representation cannot be understated. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), a fictitious FBI agent on the hit TV show, The X-Files, famously inspired an entire generation of female scientists to don their lab coats. This phenomenon has even been given its own name: the so-called “Scully Effect.”

According to the Geena Davis Institute, “nearly two-thirds of women working in STEM today say that Scully served as their personal role model and gave them the confidence to succeed in a male-dominated profession.” In more recent years, empowering female characters like Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) in Contagion (2011), Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity (2013), and Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther (2018) have shifted the needle further.

Increasingly, content creators are recognising the real-world impact that their work can have on public perceptions, as well as the importance of placing women in diverse roles. As Geena Davis — an Academy Award winner herself — puts it, “if she can see it, she can be it.” With better access to strong role models, more girls can be inspired to STEM greatness.


The time is now

That said, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the opposite is just as true. If she can’t see it, she probably can’t be it.

As a society, we cannot afford to be complacent. We must demand that women and girls of all backgrounds are represented across the media and are given the confidence to excel in a STEM profession. Only then can our industry truly mirror the society it strives to help.

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