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Media images can combat the gender gap in STEM

June 02, 2016 0 Comments

TV show Crime Scene Investigation is famous for its positive and realistic female role models and its’ credited for the spike in the number of women now entering forensic science. 

Gender gaps still exist:

Women in America make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and earn more than half of higher-education degrees but statistics also show a gender gap still exists in STEM jobs and all top-level leadership positions.  Did you know that women hold less than 3% of Fortune 500 CEO jobs?  As for STEM jobs, the situation is so grim the White House is researching the gender gap and developing national strategies to solve it.   

“One of the things that I really strongly believe in is that we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering.  We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent…not being encouraged the way they need to.” – President Barak Obama 

We think President Obama is onto something when he says society needs to encourage females in the way they need to be encouraged.  

The Root of the problem is how females are represented:

Research conducted by Stephanie Simon of Tulane University and Crystal Hoyt of the University of Richmond scrutinized images of women in leadership roles across all fields including STEM.  They wanted to know if negative or traditional gender images had any impact on women’s self-perceptions and aspirations. Simon and Hoyt looked at pictures were women were portrayed in traditional gender scenarios and images where women went against it.  Traditional images like a housewives versus images of a women pictured as professional athletes, entrepreneurs or doctors.  They also analysed the impact of images on female self-perceptions and leadership aspirations after the women completed a leadership task.   Simon and Hoyt found women who were exposed to counter-stereotypical media reported higher levels of leadership aspirations after the leadership task than those that just viewed images of women in traditional gender roles.  This means their research proves that gender stereotypes in the media negatively impact women’s self-perception and leadership aspirations.   The solution is showcasing inspiring yet relate-able, attainable female role models:The White House for its ‘STEM Depiction Opportunties believes the solution is about “inclusion of diverse and compelling STEM images, stories, and positive messages in mainstream entertainment media in order to help promote greater diversity in the STEM workforce”.  

There are some movies with strong female STEM characters, but not enough.  Did you know that in family films men outpace women 5 to 1 as STEM professionals?  When it comes to portrayals of computer scientists and engineers it’s 14.25 to 1.  Let’s examine a couple of great examples from massively successful movies:

Photo by Universal studios – Copyright Universal Pictures from IMDB

Jurassic Park (1993): Laura Dern stars as Dr. Ellie Sattler, a paleobotanist.  She’s invited to Isla Nublar, a wildlife park filled with cloned dinosaurs, by billionaire philanthropist John Hammond.  Once there, she helps roboot the entire park’s electrical network (showing off some awesome engineering skills!), and ultimately restarts the park’s systems while almost being eaten by velicoraptors.  

Twister movie photo from IMDB

Twister (1996):  Helen Hunt plays Dr. Jo Harding, a meteorologist.  She researchers tornadoes.  Her career inspiration comes from her family who died in a storm when she was a child.  Dr. Jo Harding’s team, nicknamed ‘storm chasers’ develop a machine that tracks storms and records their activity.  In order to test the device she needs to put them in the pathway of a dangerous storm.

Contact movie photo from IMDB

Contact (1997): Jody Foster stars as Dr. Ellie Arroway, an astronomer.  She’s exploring the implications of extraterrestrial contact with Earth. Many of the obstacles Dr. Arroway comes up against are those that real-life scientists face such as vocal criticism from other members of the scientific community, funding crises, and the issue of credit for scientific discovery.  Several times, Dr. Arroway’s work and expertise are hijacked by a senior male colleague.  

Avatar movie photo from official trailer (2) IMDB

Avatar (2009):  We chose Avatar specifically because it is the highest grossing moving of all time including taking in $2 BILLION at the US box office alone.  People around the world really responded to this film and its storyline which includes a strong female scientist.  Sigourney Weaver stars as Dr. Grace Augustine, an exobiologist.  She’s the leader of the Avatar program.  Dr. Augustine is an incredible character because she is driven, extremely smart and she is the one in charge of the lab.

Impact of counter-stereotypical media images:

Stephanie Simon and Crystal Hoyt found in their research that if more images of women in counter-stereotypical roles were utilized, women from a young age may develop more flexible gender role beliefs that incorporate stereotypical masculine traits. 

So if females are shown more inspiring yet relate-able, attainable role model imagery helping to close the gender gap in STEM presumably this will enable other factors to resolve and open more doors for women. 

We talked to Dr. Shima Bakarat at the University of Cambridge’s Entrepreneurship Center about this.  Dr. Bakarat’s dedicated her career to researching STEM issues including gender within STEM.  She’s also launched an entrepreneurship course specifically designed for women in STEM  to help support them turn their research into a business.   

According to Dr. Bakarat taking on the gender gap involves a number of factors “women need to be going for what they want but also openly recognizing and addressing unconscious bias, having a system and structure that actively invites men and women to put themselves forward for opportunities, raising the profile of women’s successes, and most importantly, we need men to start championing women since many opportunities are steered towards specific people way before they are made public and only senior members are privy to them.  Senior managers and investors need to combat the natural urge to support and promote people like themselves.  So whereas women do need to lean in, men need to lean out!”

Everyone can work to solve the gender gap. Hollywood can create more realistic female role-models by helping improve the gender balance by casting more fabulous women in STEM parts.  The advertising industry can create more campaigns with relatable women holding STEM jobs.  The rest of us can all help support women so females can hold equal representation not only in STEM jobs but in all areas were gender gaps exist including entrepreneurship, athletics and leadership. 

Shenova is on a mission to create more positive media imagery through our STEM-centric fashion- check it out here




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