Women with scientific vocations? More than science-fiction

In the long-term, cultural productions that promote women in science will succeed in encouraging more and more scientific vocations in girls. #DiscovHER deciphers the mechanisms of TV series!

In the depths of web culture or in the masculine world of online role-playing games, gender stereotypes are still very much prevalent, so much so that there is an adage relating to the under-representation of girls in networked environments: "There are no girls on the Internet”. We could, tongue-in-cheek, extend this saying to the world of the TV series, such is it rare to see a woman portray the title role in a science-fiction drama. Some successful series have, however, made the decision to bring women who carry out scientific professions to the screen and to give them prominence. What if, as well as breaking down outmoded TV conventions, the heroines of this new genre could spark new vocations in the sciences?

The X-Files

It was probably the TV series The X-Files in the early 1990s that first marked the advent of a better representation of female scientists in cultural productions. In this paranormal series, where science was predominant in every episode, one of the main roles was given to a woman, the special agent Dana Scully. Although she shared the bill with Fox Mulder, her male alter ego, Scully had great screen presence and contributed to the idea that science is not a domain reserved exclusively for men. Season by season, the heroine emerged as one of the unique scientific standard-bearers of the series.

Later, at the beginning of the 2000s, the female scientist figure became more varied and more important in numerous TV series. In the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are represented by several important characters, some of which are women. More than ever before, equal representation in fiction gained visibility. Even better, women seemed to finally find legitimacy in the very codified spheres of geek culture. For the first time, conventions were appearing to fall apart and from then on, in TV series, female scientists would use the same language, have the same interests and share the same skills as their male counterparts.

The Big Bang Theory

In the famous series, The Big Bang Theory, which portrayed the daily life of four geeky guys going through the trials of flat-sharing and life at work, we find female protagonists that restore the gender balance. For example, the characters Bernadette and Amy, work colleagues, represent female scientists on the small screen and become as credible and legitimate as the men, by perfectly mastering the codes of geek culture.

Although, through TV series, mentalities are changing and popular culture is tending to better assimilate women in scientific professions, the idea that the world of research is a territory belonging only to men seems to persist. Consequently, there are still not proportionately enough female students studying science at university: only 28.1% of undergraduate science students are women in France, according to a report by the CNRS (National Scientific Research Centre). Given that fact, can we believe that equal representation in cultural works can have a beneficial effect?

The popularity of a TV series seems to have a role to play in the image that students have of a profession or a subject. 

According to an article in the Parisien, since CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has aired on TF1 (Channel 1 on French TV), numbers in certain classes leading to careers in forensic science have noticeably increased. Can this current trend attract more girls into studying science? For Catherine Monnot, doctor of social and cultural anthropology, this remains to be seen, because: “the choice of a profession is still very much influenced by toys, which follow social roles: women are associated with the arts, social matters, aesthetics, the home, whereas boys have construction toys, scientific toys, outside toys...”.

However, a study published in the very serious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association seems to prove that when we break the paradigm that establishes science as a domain reserved for boys, girls find it easier to envisage studying science at university level. Thus, according to the study, three times more girls expressed a desire to undertake scientific studies after having read an article that deliberately deconstructed the male stereotypes linked to the profession.

Following this logic, a good argument could be made that, in the long-term, cultural productions that promote women in science will succeed in encouraging more and more scientific vocations in girls.

Share your favourite women scientist characters with @4womeninscience!

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