Why Media Matters: Depictions of Women in STEM

November 04, 2016

Written by: Natalie Lim

Humans are storytellers. In the end, that may be the thing that we are remembered for - our ability to spin words into worlds, and pull narratives out of nothing. The majority of the entertainment industry is based around one principle: which stories are worth sharing? Directors, producers, and studios make decisions every day about what kinds of shows they will produce, what themes they will focus on, and which characters deserve screen time. Unfortunately, many of the characters that have been deemed less worthy of screen time are women who are working and succeeding in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. The White House Council on Women and Girls and The Office of Science and Technology Policy recently released a fact sheet dealing with current problems related to STEM depiction in the media, as well as strategies for solving them.

Sela Ward as Detective Jo Danville in CSI: NY

The CSI Effect

When CSI aired on television for the first time in 2000, it became incredibly popular almost immediately. Directors and networks were quick to take notice, and thus a whole line of shows focused on forensic science and detective work was born, including Law & OrderThe Mentalist, and three official CSI spin-offs. The word "phenomenon" is almost an understatement - this genre of television inspired video games, books, and even board games.  As the White House fact sheet explains, one unintended consequence of CSI's popularity was that it exposed huge audiences to the world of forensic science, a world which notably featured a number of successful women. As a result, universities in the US saw their undergraduate and graduate degree enrollment in forensic science programs nearly double between 2000 and 2005. And it's worth noting that this trend of media affecting career choices isn't anything new - even before CSI was encouraging people to pursue forensics, shows such as The West Wing were depicting women as professional lawyers, and a number of women played successful doctors on shows such as ER. Both of these fields also benefited greatly from positive media representation, further underlining the impact that media can have on our lives.

There has also been a substantial amount of evidence to prove that the media's continual adherence to the stereotype of the Caucasian, middle-aged scientist is harmful to audiences, as those outside of that established description find it much harder to imagine themselves in a STEM job. How can they, when none of the scientists or engineers they see on TV look  like them? The media we are exposed to and the media that we consume has an undeniable effect on the way we look at the world, so let's take a closer look at the kind of exposure that women in STEM tend to be given.

Where are the Women?

Image courtesy of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Recently, the Geena Davis Institute released a study that analyzed female representation in 200 of the top grossing, non-animated films from 2014 and 2015. Using an automated program that they developed called the GD-IQ, they looked at a number of factors in these films that were related to gender, and the results were sobering. Male characters received about double the amount of screen time as female characters in 2015, and also spoke about twice as much as female characters did. The White House fact sheet breaks this discrepancy down even further, noting that there are five times more men than women depicted as STEM professionals in family films and primetime. And the problem isn't just limited to women getting less screen time - female characters are even shown working differently. In a 2015-2016 studySan Diego State University's Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film showed that female characters were less likely to be seen either at work or working than their male counterparts, and also that women were about half as likely to be seen taking a leadership role than men. 

Making a Change

The White House fact sheet suggests three goals for STEM-related depictions in entertainment media, as follows:

1) Include diverse STEM role models (past and present). It's important to show people of all genders, races, and ethnicities working and succeeding in STEM, especially for young girls. Giving them role models to look up to inspires their curiosity, enhances their idea of what a career in STEM could look like, and encourages them to study STEM in school. 

2) Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and societal impacts. A career in STEM doesn't have to mean working in a lab. There are an infinite number of ways to be a STEM professional, and an infinite number of ways to simultaneously work towards improving the world. STEM careers are exciting, numerous, and can have major impacts on some of the biggest issues facing society today, from global warming to natural disasters. 

3) Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions. Many people see STEM work as being boring, difficult, or only for certain types of people. Breaking down these stereotypes could involve a number of strategies, such as showing that an aptitude for STEM is developed through effort and practice (rather than external factors such as ethnicity or gender), employing tactics to overcome stereotype threat, and depicting supportive parents and teachers in the media. 

The stories we tell today are going to last for a long, long time - not just as pieces of cultural history, but in the imaginations of millions around the world. Let's make sure that they celebrate women in STEM by pushing for better, more varied representation in popular media, and by supporting shows and movies that get it right. We're lending our support by launching a series that takes an in-depth look at some our favourite female characters working in STEM - you can find the first article, on Star Trek's Nyota Uhura, on our blog here!

You can read the full White House fact sheet here, and the full Geena Davis study here. Want more? Check out our other blog post on the importance of representation.