The Female Scientist: How Does The Media Portray Women In STEM?

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Over the past decades a change has occurred. This change began as a singular entity that then became two, three, then four and soon enough it became millions. This change became millions of women breaking into the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to assert their position in what once was considered a man’s world.

The future is growing stronger day by day for female scientists

While historically there had been women working within the sciences, with the likes of Marie Curie, Mary Somerville, and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson paving the way, it was not until the 20th Century that women had a true foothold within the scientific professions. However, a remnant of prejudiced years past still taints STEM for many women, with STEM Women finding that only 35% of STEM students in UK higher education were women when analysing UCAS data. Although this does appear disheartening, progress is being made. Wise Campaign found that “the government’s data shows that, as of 2019, there are now just over a million women (1,019,400) in core-STEM – representing an increase of over 350,000 in the last ten years.” They even highlighted that by 2030 there will be enough women in STEM careers to influence real change. The future is growing stronger day by day for female scientists.

Yet, what is it that has dismembered the appeal of STEM for many women?

Jocelyn Steinke’s “Cultural Representations of Gender and Science: Portrayals of Female Scientists and Engineers in Popular Films” suggested that as media has become a more and more important staple in the lives of children, its influence has snowballed. Children look to films and TV shows for role models as they enter adolescence and become more independent. So, when young girls see female characters on their screens visibly concerned about their appearance and romance over academics or careers, they accept that being feminine is the only method of gaining approval, acceptance, and popularity. All things the media emphasise as essential for a young girl.

her appearance is prioritised over practicality, having Claire run from a T-Rex in high heels

Take Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire Dearing in Jurassic World as an example. Even though she is clearly a very intelligent and established woman, being a research scientist and operations manager at the popular dinosaur theme park, much of her narrative in the film is focused on her workaholic, appearance-centred attitude, and budding romance with Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady. Her intelligence is questioned throughout the film as she makes numerous life-threatening mistakes which set the stage for Owen to save the day. Let’s not forget that her appearance is prioritised over practicality, having Claire run from a T-Rex in high heels.

This stereotype emerges in many representations of female scientists, with their portrayals being two sides of the same coin. On one side, you have the scientist that rejects all femininity and works no stop. On the other lies the ultimate example of femininity as the media defines it: young, beautiful, naïve, and used only for the romance subplot. Claire Dearing became somewhat of a mixture of the two. Would this class as progress? These two stereotypes popped up quite frequently in the early decades of STEM-themed entertainment, with The Lyda Hill Foundation and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media finding that “women STEM characters were twice as likely to appear in television (41.1%) and streaming (40.6%) content than in films (20.9%)” in their recent report on the subject. But, in recent years there has been some development. While male characters still outweigh females in numbers ((62.9% compared to 37.1%) the stereotype that long clung to female characters has loosened its grip.

These female characters still have a long journey until they are truly representative of women in STEM

A Series of Unfortunate Events provided young girls aspiring to work in STEM with the wonderful role model of Violet Baudelaire, played by Malina Weissman in the 2017 Netflix adaptation. A budding engineer, Violet does not shy away from her passion for the practical side of science, discovering and constructing many ways to save her siblings and her from Count Olaf’s schemes. She cares for her family and friends, looks after her appearance, and delves deep into her engineering passion, without sacrificing any of them for the other. She can be feminine and a scientist.

This progress in the representation of female scientists is empowering. Before, the media presented the scientific world as solely for men, but through years of improvements the female characters are gradually cementing their selves alongside them. However, these female characters still have a long journey until they are truly representative of women in STEM.

These characters do not need to be sexualised, nor turned into workaholics to be engaging or inspiring

Moving away from the stereotypes of personalities, an issue arises in terms of race. The Lyda Hill Foundation and The Geena Davis Institute also found that “white women STEM characters were far more likely to be featured as leads than women of colour STEM characters (11.1% compared to 2.0%) in films and TV shows.” That is why films like Hidden Figures are so important. Not only does the film steer away from the traditional female scientist as a biologist, but it also provides us three striking women of colour leads (Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary), each skilled in different aspects of mathematics. The biographical drama explores the three women’s lives in depth, sharing the discrimination they faced on a daily basis in both their home and work lives. Each go above and beyond to demonstrate their abilities while overcoming their hardships while sustaining a connection with their families. Katherine went on to calculate the trajectories for the Apollo 11 and Space Shuttle missions, Dorothy stayed at NASA, being the first African-American supervisor, and Mary became NASA’s first female African-American engineer.

This was representation of women in STEM done right.

Hidden Figures and A Series of Unfortunate Events are examples that should be looked to when wanting to present female scientists. These characters do not need to be sexualised, nor turned into workaholics to be engaging or inspiring. They can have a passion for their craft. They can care about those they love. They can be real, scientific women.

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Featured image courtesy of  ThisisEngineering RAEng via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article trailer courtesy of Universal Pictures via YouTube.

In article images courtesy of hiddenfiguresmovie via Instagram. No changes made to these images.

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