Why media matters: Images of women scientists and engineers

ITU

Despite global efforts to inspire and engage women and girls in science, women and girls in many countries remain excluded, held back by gender biases, social norms, and expectations, which influence the quality of female education as well as career options.

Gender inequalities not only exist in the real world, but also in film and television.

A study published by the Geena Davis Institute on female characters in popular films from around the world illustrates how gender stereotypes are reinforced by movie characterizations.

In movies screened in 11 countries, nearly 90 per cent of actors seen in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) roles were male.

In 2012, Academy Award Winning Actor and advocate Geena Davis was appointed ITU’s Special Envoy for Women and Girls in the field of technology, as part of a campaign highlighting the empowering role technology can play in the lives of women and girls. Davis was also recognized as a laureate at the 2012 World Telecommunication and Information Society Awards. More recently, Davis was honoured at the 2020 Governors Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her work in promoting gender parity on screen.

“Media portrayals that emphasize cultural norms of femininity and traditional roles for women do little to encourage adolescent girls in engineering, science, and technology,” notes communications scholar Jocelyn Steinke. She adds, “girls exposed to cultural representations that present engineering and science as masculine are likely to label these occupations as masculine, thus automatically excluding themselves from educational and professional opportunities.”

Breaking STEM stereotypes

While female scientists may be relatively rare on the big screen or in our living rooms may be low, several outstanding STEM performances helped break the stereotype.

One example is Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols in the original Star Trek series, one of the first black women to be featured in a major US television series in a non-menial role. In the Star Trek universe, Uhura began as a communications chief aboard the USS Enterprise who specialized in linguistics, cryptography, and philology. In the show’s fictitious year 2266, she moves to the operations division, where she proved to be a skilled technician and reliable bridge officer operating the helm, navigating the ship, and monitoring onboard scientific experiments.

In a 2019 interview, Nichols revealed that a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay on the show because her character was the first TV image of a qualified, space-travelling woman of colour. After Star Trek, Nichols went on to play a key role in the efforts of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to recruit both people of colour and the first female astronauts.

Role models

In Contact (1997), Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster) is a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) scientist who finds strong evidence of extraterrestrial life and is chosen to make the first contact.

The film features numerous real-life sites involved in space research and exploration, including the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the Mir space station, and the Space Coast surrounding Cape Canaveral.

As a child, Ellie’s father taught her to monitor shortwave radio frequencies. She later becomes a talented scientist who decodes a message that turns out to be the schematics of a mysterious machine to connect intelligent life across the galaxies. According to Washington Post culture columnist Alyssa Rosenberg, “Ellie herself is a character type that remains relatively rare: a brilliant scientist who is passionate, enthusiastic, occasionally girly. Contact is a movie that doesn’t think female characters have to be only one thing.”

In Contagion (2011), Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is a meticulous epidemic intelligence officer who works with the United States Center for Disease Control – currently well-known as the CDC. Her tireless work to save the lives of those around her, along with deep knowledge and unwavering devotion to science make her a role model for women in STEM.

On-screen scientists

Gravity (2013) features Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a biomedical engineer who develops ground-breaking medical imaging technology approved for use in the Hubble Space Telescope. When disaster strikes on her first mission to space, she relies on her ingenuity to avoid a nearly lethal situation. Not only a leader and innovator in her field, but Dr. Stone also adapts to every new challenge the mission throws at her.

In Black Panther (2018), Shuri (Letitia Wright) played an engineering mastermind. Her character has been lauded as an inspiration to young girls wanting to get into science and tech-related fields of study.

But women in space are not just science fiction.

The biographical drama Hidden Figures (2016) features the stories of real mathematicians who worked for NASA, making key contributions to US success in the Space Race.

Amid raging civil rights protests, all three were African American women. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) programmed early computers, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) joined NASA as an engineer after a difficult battle to be allowed to study engineering, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson) calculated the trajectories of Apollo 11 and the Space Shuttle missions. They did so while dealing with racism and misogyny at every turn.

Changing mindsets

Women’s underrepresentation in STEM jobs remains one of the stumbling blocks to the attainment of gender equality everywhere, which is a key part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Yet research confirms that media portrayals of women as science professionals can influence and inspire, as well as help to inform girls about future professional roles.

Effecting change requires deliberate action. “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,” observes a white paper from FEM Inc., How media shapes perceptions of science and technology for girls and women.

“Without conscious effort to change the environment, media is more likely to reinforce stereotypes surrounding STEM rather than break them.”

Consequently, the white paper continues: “We need to inform content creators about the real effects of the underrepresentation of women in science. More importantly – we must demand to see more women in more diverse roles, both in STEM and other areas. If we direct our attention and our viewership to the existing TV shows, movies and online content that support and promote strong female characters and role models in STEM – then hopefully the supply will follow, to the benefit of us all.”

“The media can shape people’s perceptions on reality and construct and even change their mindsets on gender roles,” observes Arooba Javed in a study entitled The Media, the Women and STEM Fields. “The way that women in STEM are portrayed in the media is important because it can either perpetuate stereotypes or help break them down.”

Suggested further reading

Adolescent Girls’ STEM Identity Formation and Media Images of STEM Professionals: Considering the Influence of Contextual Cues

Cultural Representations of Gender and Science: Portrayals of Female Scientists and Engineers in Popular Films

What a scientist looks like: Portraying gender in the scientific media

Media Depictions of Women in STEM Series

Portrayals of Female Scientists in the Mass Media

Header image: Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in the STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Season 1, Episode 7. Original air date, October 20, 1966. Image is a frame grab. Credit: CBS via Getty Images

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