Quick – what was the most recent film you saw that featured a woman scientist? How about an ethnic minority scientist? How about both?
Short of the brilliant Hidden Figures, I'm betting you couldn't think of many. And that's because, according to the Lyda Hill Foundation and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, our film and TV choices are pretty poor when it comes to diverse STEM characters. In fact, they're no better than they were a decade ago.
That's what researchers found from a huge new analysis of over 1,000 leading or major characters taken from the most popular TV shows and movies from between 2007 and 2017, based on Nielsen and Variety rankings respectively, as well as the 60 most popular shows on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
In what will probably not come as a surprise to many, STEM characters in popular culture are mostly men, outnumbering women by a factor of nearly two to one. More depressing, though, is that the proportion of women characters has actually decreased since 10 years ago, when it stood at 40 percent.
There were also more subtle biases: Already under-represented in STEM generally, women were particularly invisible in physical science, computing, and engineering. Two-thirds of the women that were shown were medical doctors or life scientists – in fact, this was the only STEM area where they outnumbered men. And, while women and men were shown facing similar levels of adversity, men were more likely to be seen overcoming it.
Curiously, Hollywood seems to lag behind TV and online platforms when it comes to modern, diverse STEM representations: films were half as likely to feature female STEM characters, 75 percent less likely to feature STEM characters of color, and 2.5 times as likely to show STEM characters sacrificing their personal or family lives for their careers when compared to streamed services.
Inevitably, some people will react to the findings by saying that, since women are less active in STEM, these statistics just accurately reflect the real world. But while it's true that less than a quarter of STEM jobs in the US are held by women, research shows that this is likely the result, rather than the cause, of a lack of media representation. As the researchers note, girls are discouraged from STEM from an early age by even well-meaning parents, and, by university, women overwhelmingly feel unwelcome in stereotypically "sciencey" environments.
Luckily, the research also provided us with some clues on how to fix the problem.
Part of the study involved asking a nationally representative sample of women and girls about their experiences in STEM. Over 80 percent said seeing representation in the media is important, with most able to point to at least one specific character who inspired them to pursue science – April Sexton, from Chicago Med, was the most popular if you're wondering.
Women were also more likely to go into STEM if they saw it as a route to help others rather than themselves and if they perceive it as a family-flexible option. Meanwhile, one dispiriting trend was women avoiding STEM if they feel it will bring discrimination or harassment – a problem suffered by only 4 percent of TV and film characters but a big problem in real life.
The report wasn't all bad news – the media is getting better at recognizing women as leaders, as well as the collaborative nature of science. But to push progress further, the study recommends increasing representation and role models for women and girls, combating stereotypes, and, of course, hiring and paying women equally in the workforce.
After all – when science and scientists are diverse, we all benefit.