Hollywood, where are the women scientists?

Today, the 89th Academy Awards (Oscars) will be held in Los Angeles to reward excellence in the film industry. Although most people can reel off a handful of well-known actresses, the reality is that women are hugely underrepresented in film. Research by the Geena Davis Institute has recently shown that male characters enjoy consistently more screen and speaking time than their female counterparts. Further research shows that women in STEM roles are particularly lacking. Could this be one of the reasons that young girls and women do not pursue STEM careers as often as men? DiscovHER investigates.

It is hard to quantify the precise impact of the media on the choices people make. When we are constantly bombarded with various images, messages and ideas, it is difficult to trace the impact of any particular film, magazine article or subway advert in an easily quantifiable and accurate way. However, there is increasing concern over the effects that aggregate media stereotypes can have on society, particularly on children and young people. The problem of women’s underrepresentation in the media is a well-documented one, with research being carried out by institutions such as the New York Film Academy and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, as well as countless universities.

Recently, the Geena Davis Institute carried out a survey of the 200 top grossing films in the US in 2014 and 2015. Using machine learning technology, developed with Google and the University of Southern California, the Institute analyzed how women were represented in the most popular films of the last two years. Sadly, though unfortunately not surprisingly, male characters were shown on the screen almost twice as much as women, with a similar discrepancy in speaking time.

Another study published by the Institute in 2014 showed that for STEM roles, gender disparity was particularly high. Over 3,000 characters were examined: of those that had a STEM job, only a dismal 11% were women. This stark difference was observed in varying degrees across different scientific fields: 12% of characters working in life or physical sciences, 17% of characters in computer science and 9% of characters in engineering were women. Not a single on-screen mathematician was a woman.

Given these dire statistics, can we infer that more women scientists on screen will encourage more girls to take up STEM career paths? Geena Davis is clear on this issue: “If she can see it, she can be it.” More female characters in STEM roles are needed to help give young girls the confidence that science is for them.

Fortunately, this year’s Oscars selection does include Hidden Figures, an inspirational film based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, a group of black female engineers that worked at NASA in the early 1960s. Jackson was the first black woman to be promoted to the post of NASA engineer. DiscovHER won’t spoil the plot for you, but we certainly know which film is our Oscars pick!

How do you think women scientists are represented in the media? Share your views on @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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