Women in STEM and the Power of Mass Media

16/02/2024     3 min read     By Ahlem Khattab

When trying to understand why science, tech, engineering, and math remain so male-dominated, it’s necessary to examine how we interact with them through culture.

You may have never set foot in a research facility, but if you were asked to think of what one might look like, you would probably come up with something. It would be the product of all you have come to know about research labs and science through other means than your own experience. The mass media plays a big part in that. Images of scientists at work in their white lab coats might even pop up. And depending on what specific media you consumed in your life, these imaginary scientists are most likely to be men in majority. That’s at least how they are painted in Hollywood movies and TV shows.

According to an analysis by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and If/Then published this week, 38% of STEM characters shown in films and TV shows from 2018 to 2022 are women, with about 56% of them working in life sciences (including medical and veterinary professions). Maybe you were thinking more about chemists in your imaginary lab earlier on… Well, only 4% of fictional women in STEM are in physical sciences.

Beyond the numbers, representation is also a question of how. If women are present but mostly in the background or are just there to help and support men, that normalizes the idea that women’s role in STEM is secondary. 

In 2007, The Big Bang Theory tried to give “nerd culture” a new reputation by choosing to make four men in STEM its main characters, in addition to a woman waitress/aspiring actress (who, in 12 seasons, is never even given a last name until she gets married). The internationally successful sitcom has come to be known for its “quirky” characters, but also its sexist (and racist and homophobic) jokes. Despite adding two female characters who were also scientists to its main cast, the show has been criticized for its skewed depiction of women, on top of an altogether stereotypical portrayal of people in STEM.

In more recent years, we’ve seen improvements in other works of fiction. Hollywood seems to have gotten better at recognizing women’s contributions to advancing, say, mathematics (Hidden Figures, 2016), but when we still get a highly anticipated blockbuster movie in 2023 (Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer) that snubs the many women scientists behind the very invention it’s built around, then clearly there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“We need to make STEM cool in a sense that is relatable.”

Eleonora Svanberg is a real-life woman in STEM. She studied physics at Stockholm University and applied mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Before beginning her PhD at the University of Oxford, she’s taking a much-needed gap year as works on different projects around making STEM less of a man’s world. The portrayal of girls and women in these fields in the media is something that she’s been watching closely, especially in the process of writing her forthcoming book on mathematical confidence (due this summer).

Eleonora Svanberg
Eleonora Svanberg (Photo credit: Mark Box)

“We need to make STEM cool in a sense that is relatable,” she says. “Like Barbie was an excellent movie right, and I think Oppenheimer was great as well. But… I don’t think they have understood how you need to present a scientist in order for the general public to actually care about that career or for younger people to see themselves as.”

Eleonora herself has been trying to figure out how to reach out to younger people, and girls in particular, and get them interested in the possibilities of science, tech, engineering, and math. Three years after founding, back in Sweden, her organization Girls in STEM, she decided social media was the way to go. “I do think it’s a different kind of influencing.”

There’s actually a community of women studying and working in STEM who have been sharing their expertise and experience on social media, notably on TikTok, and hoping to connect with one another, inspire young girls, or just feel less isolated.

It’s those human connections that make it worth it for Eleonora. “Honestly, that’s why I’m still on social media because I get DMs daily from people. It means so much to me when they share their personal stories, and they say that I’ve made an impact on them.”

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