‘If She Can See It, She Can Be It’: The Importance of Female STEM Characters in Media

‘If She Can See It, She Can Be It’: The Importance of Female STEM Characters in Media

According to new research conducted by The Lyda Hill Foundation and Geena Davis’s Institute, improving media depictions of females in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – will encourage more women into these fields.

The study entitled “Portray Her: Representations of Women STEM Characters in Media” is the most comprehensive analysis of STEM characters in entertainment media to date. It found that 62.9% of STEM characters were played by white men, outnumbering women nearly two-to-one; a statistic that hasn’t changed in a decade.

However the study also unearthed some positive findings; it revealed that women were just as likely as men to be portrayed as STEM leaders (50.5% and 50%, respectively) and that women STEM characters were portrayed as just as strong and intelligent as their male counterparts.

As part of this study, a survey to ascertain girls’ and women’s perceptions of STEM was also conducted. The survey results are as follows:

  • Nearly 82.7% of the study participants said it was important to see women STEM characters in film and TV.
  • The vast majority of female participants who said they would consider a STEM profession said that popular STEM characters in entertainment media inspire them to pursue study or a career in STEM.
  • The study also revealed that females are more likely to go into STEM if they personally know someone in STEM, have a role model in these industries, or have a supportive network of people encouraging them to pursue their STEM interests.

A 2017 UNESCO publication shows that just 35% of higher education students studying STEM subjects are women, that 3% of ICT graduates worldwide are women, and in the UK, just 19% of girls participate in advanced STEM studies by the age of 18.

Related Post: 5 Inspiring American Female Political Leaders Challenging the Status Quo


“This [Portray Her: Representations of Women STEM Characters in Media] groundbreaking study demonstrates that if women and girls don’t see themselves on screen as STEM professionals, they’re less likely to pursue those career paths. However, the study also shows when entertainment media includes female characters in STEM, it can be highly positive,” said Geena Davis, Academy Award-winning actor and founder of the Institute.

These findings echo the findings of another study called “The Scully Effect“, which focussed on women’s perceptions of a female STEM character, specifically that of medical doctor-turned-paranormal detective Dr. Dana Scully played by actress Gillian Anderson in the hit science fiction TV series The X-Files. Scully was one of the first multifaceted female characters in the STEM field to be portrayed in entertainment media.

The research, conducted by 21st Century Fox, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of the women in the survey sample that work in STEM say Dana Scully served as their role model, confirming the Institute’s premise that entertainment media is influential in shaping the life choices of viewers.

“There are plenty of stories to be told of women on the front lines of scientific breakthroughs and innovation, but their stories are seldomly brought to the forefront of popular culture,” said Lyda Hill, founder of the Lyda Hill Foundation. “We are at a pivotal time to change the ways girls and women think about themselves and their abilities to pursue careers in STEM. If we support a woman in STEM, then she can change the world.”

To encourage more diversity in STEM, researchers recommend improving media depictions of STEM characters so that both gender and race are considered, particularly at the time of writing the script or screenplay, or during the casting process.

Research findings from a 2017 study on the influence of gender stereotypes on children’s notions of intelligence, girls as young as six believe that brilliance is a male trait, so combatting stereotypes and misperceptions about STEM being a pursuit for males only or that females have lower aptitudes for STEM will also help.

Not only do we need to break down the ‘science is male’ stereotype, but now we need to break down a ‘brilliance is male’ stereotype, too.” – Sarah Eddy from Florida International University tells The Atlantic.

Cultivating girls’ interest in STEM subjects from an early age may serve to encourage them to pursue career paths in these fields.

As the Institute’s motto states, “If she can see it, she can be it.” Rather than tell girls and women that anything is possible, it’s much better if we showed them.

Click here to access the study “Portray Her: Representations of Women STEM Characters in Media”.

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Title image of Gillian Anderson most known for her role as Dr. Dana Scully in X-Files speaking at the 2013 San Diego Comic Con International, for “The X-Files” 20th Anniversary panel, at the San Diego Convention Center in California. Photo credit Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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