Depictions of Women in STEM: Nyota Uhura

November 14, 2016

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: The Original Series.

In reality, women in STEM are underrepresented in the workplace. But even in fiction, this trend bleeds into the portrayals of women in STEM, especially in television and film. While it is important to recognize the lack of representation, and problematic representations of fictional women in STEM that do exist, we would like to use this blog series to celebrate the positive portrayals of fictional women in STEM in entertainment. This series introduces and expands upon fictional women in STEM who have been featured in entertainment aimed at all ages, and the actors who brought their characters to life, and our hope is that far more positive portrayals of similar women in STEM will continue to appear in film and television.

The fictional representations of women in STEM have not always been positive. While there are a growing number of women depicting characters in the STEM fields, male characters received two times the amount of screen time as woman characters in 2015; men are also depicted five times more than women as STEM professionals. These numbers and the discrepancies between men and women in TV and film are significant. As a catalyst for inspiring girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM fields, the representation of women in STEM in media is very important.

Fictional women in STEM have had a somewhat established presence in TV series and movies - as early as 1956, the television series The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu included Carla Balenda in the STEM-adjacent role of Nurse Betty Leonard. In 1966, Star Trek: The Original Series featured Nyota Uhura and Janice Rand, woman characters who climbed the ranks in their plotlines – the former also being a woman of colour. And since 2000, there have been over 26 television shows featuring women in STEM. 

This first installment of our series focuses on Nyota Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series, and the woman who brought her to life on the screen.

Nyota Uhura – Star Trek: The Original Series

Source: Star Trek Stalker

Nyota Uhura was played by Nichelle Nichols, who has her own fascinating story as an actress, singer, and voice artist. Her acting career took off with her role on Star Trek, but her experience prior to the show included Broadway musicals, theatre, and singing on tour in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Her work on Star Trek, made her one of the first black women to be featured in a major television series not portraying a servant. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a mega-fan and convinced her to continue as Uhura when she contemplated leaving the show.

In the Star Trek universe, Uhura began as the head of the Communications department aboard the USS Enterprise. In the year 2266, she was transferred to the operations division, where she proved to be a skilled technician and reliable bridge officer. As the latter, she contributed to the team by operating the helm, navigating the ship through the universe, and monitoring scientific activity aboard the ship. Technical skill wasn't her only forte, though - she was also talented in mathematics, spoke Swahili fluently, and ran the hundred meter dash in record time.

Even with all these skills and accomplishments, there are no episodes focusing on Uhura. She did receive more screen time as the series continued, but the 2013 installment of J. J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Uhura (as portrayed by Zoe Saldana) was unfortunately relegated to the role of "damsel in distress". 

Source: Moviefan Central

Despite her relatively low screen time, Uhura as a character and Nichelle Nichols as an actress were – and still are – inspirational women. Nichols even worked for NASA through her consultant firm, Women in Motion, Inc., and began a campaign encouraging the agency to hire minority and female personnel. Apparently, when this project with NASA began, she "told them straight up that if she found qualified applicants and she continued to see 'a lily-white, all-male astronaut corps' she would file a class-action suit against them". A documentary is currently in production that covers her involvement in the recruitment program. In other space-related endeavours, Nichols is also on the National Space Society Board of Governors, and science fiction author Robert Heinlein dedicated his novel Friday to her in part.


Nichols has been recognized for her work by a number of organizations, and some of her distinctions include an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College and an honorary membership of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. In addition, Asteroid 68410 Nichols is named in her honour. She and George Takei, who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series, are good friends. Both Nichols and Takei are pioneers for civil rights – those of women and those of LGBTQ people, respectively. 

Did Star Trek: The Original Series meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?

Out of the three goals, the series seems to have met goal #2: Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and societal impacts. Uhura's career on the USS Enterprise was diverse. Her skills included communication, translation, linguistics, cryptography (writing and solving codes), and philology (the study of structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages). She worked in the operations divison, specializing in military services and operations, navigated the ship on her own when necessary, and discovered the planet where the Enterprise's shuttlecraft Galileo had been pulled off course ("The Galileo Seven," 1967). She even re-wired the whole communication system after a blackout jammed all communication frequencies ("Who Mourns for Adonais?," 1967). Uhura's work on the Enterprise certainly shows the breadth of the STEM field, and proves that even disciplines not directly related to STEM are important for STEM organizations (and starships!) to run smoothly.

Want to join the conversation? Get in touch on Twitter or Facebook and let us know which fictional women in STEM you think we should cover next! You can also read our full blog post on why media matters here, and look out for the next installment in this series, along with more ideas for taking action on this issue.