How Media Shapes Perceptions of Science and Technology for Girls and Women
Meghana Bhatt, Ph.D., Johanna Blakley, Ph.D., Natasha Mohanty, M.S., Rachel Payne, M.B.A.
Women and Stem – an issue of national importance
America is experiencing a significant and growing shortage of adequately trained workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This shortage has led to multiple policy initiatives to close the gap, including two recent bills in congress to ease immigration for qualified STEM professionals. At the same time, women make up only 24% of the STEM work force – a number that has remained stagnant for nearly a decade. This gender gap represents an unacceptable waste of potential STEM candidates precisely when the supply of talent is scarce.
Theory of Change: Media Drives Beliefs, and Beliefs Drive Behavior
Media and entertainment have a profound effect on how we see ourselves and the world. Studies have shown that media has the ability to influence people’s attitudes and behavior in a variety of areas. Media is particularly important in its ability to create and enforce (or disrupt) cultural stereotypes. There are two classes of stereotypes related to STEM where media plays an important role, especially for girls and women.
Stereotype #1: “Women are bad at science and math”
- Stereotype Threat: This stereotype directly affects young girls’ beliefs about their own capacity.
- Expectancy Effects: This stereotype affects whether teachers and parents expect girls to be interested in, and do well in STEM fields.
Both of these beliefs have measurable effects on how girls perform in the classroom.
- Bias in decision making: The implicit biases held by decision makers mean that even when women do have the same qualifications as men, they are less likely to be hired into the STEM workforce and receive mentoring in order to become leaders and managers in the field.
Stereotype #2: “STEM professionals are asocial and unfeminine”
Widespread cultural stereotypes portraying STEM professionals as awkward and asocial have a measurable effect on whether women (but not men) can see themselves going into these fields. When girls work with real scientists, they broaden their idea of what a scientist looks like and express greater interest in science.
Implications for Media: How can we help
This introduces an exciting opportunity for content producers and policy makers to make a positive difference in the overall competitiveness and composition of our top talent. The media has a vital role to play and we have provided a few recommendations below:Representation: depict more well-rounded portrayals of scientists and technologists.
- Show more stories of real women in STEM fields: their lives, their struggles and their accomplishments.
- Demonstrate that being interested in science does not imply an inability to have friends or a family.
- Computer Programmers
We believe that the key to supporting girls and women in fulfilling their potential is to break stereotypes – which means exposing them to narratives showing as many diverse but realistic paths to STEM success as possible. In order to affect this change, we must take action. The people who create and distribute media are part of the same culture, and prey to the same subconscious biases as the rest of us. Without conscious effort to change the environment, the media is more likely to reinforce stereotypes surrounding STEM rather than break them. We need to inform content creators about the real effects to our economy and ability to participate in the global labor force if the imbalance and underrepresentation of women in science and technology persists. More importantly – we must demand to see more women in more diverse roles, both in STEM and other areas. If we direct our attention and our viewership to the existing TV shows, movies and online content that support and promote strong female characters and role models in STEM – then hopefully, supply will follow.