The portrayal of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in US entertainment media offers mixed messages to girls and women. This is the conclusion of an analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a non-profit organization supported by Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, California, and the Lyda Hill Foundation, a private science funder in Dallas, Texas.
The longitudinal study examined STEM characters in film and television and found that the media largely reinforces the narrative that scientists are white men. Male STEM characters outnumber female ones by 62.9% to 37.1%, and most STEM characters — 71.2% — are white. The study also found that films and television shows perpetuate the myth that some scientific disciplines are inappropriate for women. For example, compared with men, there are fewer female physical scientists (6.4% to 11.8%), computer scientists (8.6% to 11.5%) and engineers (2.4% compared to 13.7%) on the screen.
“We were excited to get the report in our hands, but were not excited it confirmed our hypothesis” that women are under-represented as scientists in the media, says Nicole Small, president of the Lyda Hill Foundation.
On the positive side, although female representation is low, female STEM characters are as likely as male ones to be portrayed as leaders in their fields, and they are painted as equally competent and empowered and more intelligent than men in these roles.
Be what you see
The team surveyed girls and women aged 11–24 to find out their opinions of and experiences in STEM. One-third of girls and women surveyed said they have considered a STEM career, but only one-quarter expressed an intent to go into STEM. African American girls and women were the least likely to report an intention to pursue a scientific field.
However, nearly 83% of study participants said that it was important to them to see female STEM characters on the screen. When asked what might encourage or discourage them from scientific careers, girls and women report increased interest in pursuing STEM if they feel that it will be a collaborative career and will not subject them to sexism or gender bias, the study found.
“This report offers an opportunity to make change,” says Small. She and her collaborators at the Geena Davis Institute are taking the report to meetings with advertisers and producers of TV, movies and YouTube content with a simple message: “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it,” says Small. And that, in fact, is the mantra that the institute was built on: “If she can see it, she can be it.” The potential societal impact is particularly noticeable when films featuring African American and female scientists become blockbusters. “Given the popularity of recent movies like Hidden Figures and Black Panther, it’s good business to have diverse women portrayed in science,” adds Small. “We need more women scientists to put their stories out there so girls can see what they can be when they grow up, and boys can see girls in these jobs, too.”