Break the stereotype

5 mins read

The gender gap is closing. Around 11% of the engineering workforce is female – that is a 2% rise from 2015 figures, according to the Women’s Engineering Society. It’s great to see that more women are deciding to enter into STEM, but it’s a slow journey.

It’s hard to exactly pinpoint why there is such a significant difference between the male vs female uptake, but a recent study undertaken by the Lyda Hill Foundation in partnership with Geena Davis's Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary's University,has identified that media representations may be considerably affecting attitudes.

“If women and girls don't see themselves on screen as STEM professionals, they're less likely to pursue those career paths,” revealed Geena Davis, actor and founder of the Institute.

"There are plenty of stories to be told of women on the front lines of scientific breakthroughs and innovation, but their stories are seldom brought to the forefront of popular culture," added Lyda Hill, founder of the Lyda Hill Foundation.

In the past decade, entertainment media also reinforced stereotypes about which STEM fields are appropriate for women, according to theGeena Davis's Institute.Fewer women STEM characters were portrayed as physical scientists (6.4% compared to 11.8%), engineers (2.4% compared to 13.7%), or in computer occupations (8.6% compared to 11.5%) than men STEM characters.

A staggering 62.9% of STEM professionals portrayed in media are men, outnumbering women STEM characters nearly two-to-one. And this has not improved in the last decade, according to the study.

But, what was interesting was that the study showed that when female characters in STEM are shown in media, it can be highly positive. In fact, 82.7% of females think it is important to see girls/women in STEM in films and television.

The problem is when females are depicted in these roles, are they fairly and accurately represented? Let’s takeAmy Farrah Fowler (Big Bang Theory) played by Mayim Bialik, as an example.

Bialik’s character, who works as a neurobiologist, wasn’t introduced until season three, and until then the show represented it as a very male role. Along with the four, main male characters who worked as scientists/engineers, the audience was also introduced to Penny – pretty much the only main female character for some time in the show. The problem was, Penny acted as a severe contrast to the male geeky depictions of STEM, with her character poking fun at the stereotype of the “dumb blonde”.

When Amy Farrah Fowler was introduced to the Big Bang she was rude, dull and had very little interest in her appearance – hugely different to Penny. It could be argued that this is reinforcing the stereotypical outlook that a woman with brains can’t be attractive.

As the series went on Amy became more interested in her appearance, but was written with a desire to become sexy, rather than seen as attractive.

Now, let’s take Temperance Brennan (Bones). Shown as a brilliant forensic anthropologist, but also – you guessed it – a sex symbol. It appears that these two show creators have gone down completely different paths with their representations, grossly stereotyping to one extreme or another.

Despite this, the study found that these two characters have, in fact, inspired women to pursue a career in STEM. It’s brilliant that seeing role models in TV shows and film can encourage a gender to think differently about their own career aspirations, but what would happen if media portrayals were “normal”, realistic people rather than these unrefined stereotypes? Would this shift the 11% up further?

It’s difficult because the entertainment media is, well, entertainment – but equally, with studies revealing that females would like to see more women in these roles, doesn’t the media now not just have a responsibility to fulfil that quota, but fulfil it in a respectful and actuate way?

"We are at a pivotal time to change the ways girls and women think about themselves and their abilities to pursue careers in STEM. If we support a woman in STEM, then she can change the world,” said Hill.

Media obviously has a role to play in all of this, but so does industry and real-life models too. It’s evident that a handful of individuals, organisations, and schemes are working hard to support and encourage women to get involved with STEM, but unfortunately, society still experiences negative attitudes towards inclusivity.

Cern, the European organisation for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers, recently held its first workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender, which saw a speaker announce to it’s mostly female audience that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”.

Professor Alessandro Strumia of the University of Pisa, Italy, and a member of the CERN collaboration, continued by saying “male scientists were being discriminated against because of ideology rather than merit”, that in Italy, female researchers usually benefit from either “free or cheaper university” education, and Oxford University extends exam times for women.

According to the BBC, he went on to show graphs which he claimed: “showed that women were hired over men whose research was cited more by other scientists in their publications, which is an indication of higher quality”.

Then he produced data which he said showed that “male and female researchers were equally cited at the start of their careers, but men scored progressively better as their careers progressed”, the BBC report said.

Prof. Strumia also claimed that his result “proved physics is not sexist against women”.

The BBC reported that when they contacted Prof. Strumia, he told them: "People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn't, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so."

Prof. Strumia’s claims didn’t stop there, with the Guardian reporting him saying that “he was overlooked for a role in favour of a woman and that anyone who speaks out is attacked, censored or risks losing their job”.

It would be interesting to hear Prof. Strumia’s take on Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the female physicist who was overlooked for a noble prize for her work in pulsars. Who got the credit for her discovery? Her male supervisor.

Physicist, Dr. Jessica Wade of Imperial College London, attended the Cern meeting and expressed how upsetting Prof. Strumia’s notions were to those at the workshop.

Dr Wade also tweeted: “On Friday I spoke at a CERN workshop on gender and high energy physics. I shared the work of @PhysicsNews’ Juno Award, the @1752Group and other evidence-based institutional programs. The head of theory @CERN gave a 30 minute Damore-esque manifesto against #womeninSTEM.”

Pic: Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Credit: Silicon Republic

"I don't understand how such a forward-thinking organisation like Cern, which does so much to promote diversity in research, could have invited him to speak to young people just starting off in their research careers when his ideas are so well known,” Dr Wade told the BBC.

In response, Cern has said it was “not aware of the content of the talk prior to the workshop” and has since been suspended Prof. Strumia from “any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event”.

This is indeed just one man’s opinion, but it’s one too many. The industry needs to be fully behind women, if it’s not, what hope does another industry such as the entertainment media have of depicting realistic STEM characters?

But it’s a catch 22. Are the roles we see represented in the media depicted as so because the media thrives on the entertainment factor – and in which case, do we need to revaluate what entertainment is? Or, is the media simply regurgitating tired, old opinions of ignorant people in the industry yet to reach the 21stCentury? Either way, both industry and media need to take a good, hard look at themselves and ask: are we doing everything we can?

Bethan Grylls is the Deputy Editor of New Electronics and gas giving her personal opinion – as a woman in the electronics and design industry – over media portrayals of females in STEM and the recent comments made by Professor Strumia at the Cern High Energy Theory and Gender workshop.