It is a well-documented fact that the STEM fields are ridden with gender disparities as women make up only a small fraction of the workforce. There are several well-known causes to this gender gap and they range from hostile work environments to the perception that science is better suited to men. The concern of this article is related to the latter cause, to the way women in STEM fields are depicted in mainstream media. This aspect is especially relevant as inspiring young girls to pursue careers in science seems to be the cornerstone of a gender-inclusive scientific community, and media is certainly a major source of inspiration for youngsters.
In this article, we would like to present two publications featured in our social media campaign that go in depth into the portrayal of female scientists.
Film-makers and studio executives have the power to decide what they will put in their movie and who will be portraying the characters and how. This is a power that goes beyond the sole remit of movie-making, as those choices can have a substantial long-term influence on the audience. In our case, the depiction of females in STEM roles, the place they have in the story, the actress portraying them and the way the character(s) will be portrayed can have a profound effect on the girls watching in their approach to STEM subjects.
Indeed, children and teenagers consume large quantities of media and can be very receptive to this kind of learning channel. The TV show ‘CSI’, which aired from 2000-2015, is known to have had an impactful and measurable influence on the perception of its main topic, forensic science. Enrollment for university forensic science programmes in the US almost doubled in the years 2000-2005, leading to the name of “CSI Effect” to describe this phenomenon.
As the “CSI Effect” displayed the power of media in motivating and influencing youth, it also highlights the negative impact that unflattering depictions of women scientist can have. As expected, female STEM characters are often misrepresented. They are vastly outnumbered by male STEM characters, they do not often have the lead role, they are subordinate to male characters, or they cannot balance work and family life (making them look like bad mothers).
As the shortage of STEM-skilled workers keeps growing, the White House decided to release a factsheet to alert the members of the entertainment community to this issue and to, hopefully, point them in the right direction. The factsheet offers three suggestions to movie-makers to be more inclusive in their depictions of STEM roles.
First, the factsheet emphasises the need to bring some diversity to STEM roles. It denotes the importance of showing women and minorities working in STEM positions and in a positive light. It also mentions the importance of role-models in promoting science to a younger audience.
Second, the more exciting aspects and the social impacts of STEM should be highlighted, as well as the wide range of possibilities and careers that STEM can lead to, as a way to inspire teenagers and students.
Third, the depiction of STEM in general is addressed. The factsheet explains that it is important to avoid the stereotyped depiction of laboratories with people wearing white coats and glasses, and that STEM is too difficult and boring. Parents and teachers should also be empowered by being depicted as enthusiastically enticing the scientific curiosity of the children as well as using active learning strategies in the classroom.
As the “CSI effect” had such a deep impact on the perception of forensic science, it is relevant to examine the way women are depicted on the show. The article at hand provides an insight into the portrayal of the show’s two main female characters as they are both in a STEM role but offer different perspectives.
This study builds on the premise that the under-representation of women in STEM careers can have causes such as the male-dominant work environment or their career objectives, but that the “public perception of women in STEM” has to be altered, in order to “challenge underlying basic assumptions” of the field, especially as most people are not familiar with the world of science and understand it as it is described in the media.
Many theories concerned with the semiotics behind women in cinema seem to agree with the fact that women are often objectified by the camera and thus trapped in their “femaleness”. They are supposed to show “emotional depth”, inherently feminine qualities and their body becomes the focus of attention, and this can mean that female characters will be punished by the script for “choosing success at work over serving men”. Accordingly, women scientists working for the police do not make sense culturally as “women in the lab are not visual commodities”. In addition, the punishing of women who do not conform to the dominant ideology is reinforcing the perception that women are out of place doing men’s work, such as lab work.
The analysis focuses on two main female scientists; Sara Sidle and Catherine Willows. They are both strong women and are in a position of power as they have to lead teams of men, even though the ultimate authority lies with their male superior. Further, the two characters are consistent with the more modern depictions of women in media by the year 2000, as networks needed to appeal to audiences of female professionals who would be interested in strong and independent characters as the ones analysed.
The two characters offer different perspectives on the story of STEM women. Sara Sidle gave up on the social and familial aspects of life in order to focus on her career, she is driven to solve her cases and to care for the victims. Catherine Willows is struggling to balance her work and domestic life. To become a scientist she had to lose her husband, and when she favors her daughter she has to make sacrifices at work. Catherine is more sexualized as a character, she is more defined by her sexuality than her intellect, as she is often presented as a former exotic dancer who “wears low-cut blouses and lots of makeup”. Whereas Sara’s behavior is at the opposite end of the spectrum. She does not exhibit sexual behavior and her body language is masculine, “she controls the scenes that she’s in” as well as her male counterparts. She is defined by her intellect and not her sexuality and can be considered liberated from a feminist perspective, she does not need the typical social and domestic aspects of life as her work fulfills her intellectually and “help her bring her sense of morality into the world”.
The women of CSI are career-driven professionals who had to sacrifice their social and personal lives. The character of Sara Sidle comforts the idea that women in STEM are intelligent, yet “socially awkward and not particularly attractive. The character of Catherine Willows is presented as attractive and deal with the attraction of men, but she is punished by the script for her career choices. In addition, it is clear that she cannot balance work and family.
On CSI, female characters can have power, prestige and authority, but this usually comes with a high price.
Aside from TV, movies are an obvious source of influence when it comes to children’s and teenager’s perception of the world. The authors of our second article emphasise that these sources in the media are especially important when direct contact with real female scientists is impossible.
Indeed, films and television have a powerful role when it comes to societal ideology, and “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation”. Accordingly, the under-or misrepresentation of women in science and of their contributions to the field play an important role in strengthening gender stereotypes.
In order to understand the potential impact of the depiction of women scientists in the media, it is worthwhile to understand two different theoretical perspectives. The Social Cognitive (learning) theory contends that “repeated observation of symbolic models, such as those found in media environments, teaches cultural patterns of behaviours” and “ that through the process of ‘identificatory learning’ viewers learn to imitate behaviours from media characters they observe”. The Possible Selves theory explains “how stereotyped images in the media might influence adolescent girls and young women as they consider both their current and future conceptions of self as well as potential future occupations for themselves”. In light of these theories, the “symbolic annihilation” mentioned earlier becomes very dangerous.
The question remains of exactly how many and how women are portrayed as scientists in movies. This study took into account movies from 2002-2014, that featured female STEM professionals. The study showed that “male STEM professionals outnumbered female STEM professionals by a ratio of 2 to 1”. And it found more female STEM professionals in co-lead and secondary roles than in primary roles and less characters having a leadership position, compared to previous studies. The difference in the sheer number of female scientists compared to their male counterparts is a sign of “symbolic annihilation”. Female scientists are often biologists or astronomer/astronauts and few were engineers or computer scientists.
However, the way the STEM world is depicted in recent films shows fewer scientist stereotypes (geeky, clumsy, mad scientists). And female scientists have been increasingly portrayed as attractive and feminine, which are qualities that movies display as desirable for women. Further, this proves that femininity is not a contractility trade to become a scientist.
Nevertheless, women scientists are often shown as not being able to balance work and family. Showing that a working woman is a threat to the child serves to reinforce the idea that STEM is a masculine field and could prevent girls to project themselves as STEM professionals.
The findings show evidence of “symbolic annihilation” and “overt and subtle” scientist stereotypes. Although positive changes should be mentioned, research indicates that the main idea of people is that scientists are male and that gender stereotypes are evident in films.
“Hollywood has the potential to be an important change agent in altering cultural representations of gender and STEM, writers and producers of popular films could increase the overall presence of female STEM professionals, and particularly those shown in lead roles, and eliminate gender stereotypes in film portrayals of female STEM professionals.”
STEINKE, Jocelyn; PANIAGUA TAVAREZ, Paola Maria. Cultural Representations of Gender and STEM: Portrayals of Female STEM Characters in Popular Films 2002-2014. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, [S.l.], v. 9, n. 3, p. 244-277, jan. 2018. ISSN 2040-0748
WARREN, Shane et al. Stemming the Tide: The Presentation of Women Scientists in CSI. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, [S.l.], v. 8, n. 3, p. 360-381, dec. 2016. ISSN 2040-0748