February 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In celebration of this Day, the State Department’s Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary reflects on how women scientists have been portrayed in popular culture.
The 1960s ushered in exciting scientific advancements related to space exploration, etching the names of countless astronauts into history books. Their achievements, however, would scarcely have been possible without the countless women mathematicians and engineers who calculated the physics of their flight trajectories. The work of these women facilitated an era of aerospace “firsts.”
Women’s contributions to science, technology, and innovation over the decades have reached far beyond outer space. They are Nobel Laureates in chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine (in Marie Curie’s case, Laureates in chemistry and physics). They revolutionized plant and animal sciences and performed the groundwork for GPS technology. These milestones are particularly extraordinary since only about 30% of researchers worldwide are women.
On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is not sufficient only to recognize women’s scientific achievements of the past and present. It is also imperative to look toward the future by addressing the barriers that prevent women and girls from pursuing these careers. Unfortunately, many of these barriers are cultural, including persistent gender stereotypes, exclusionary work environments, and lack of representation.
Representation is especially critical for young girls, who exhibit the curiosity and imagination characteristic of children and scientists alike. A school-aged girl’s impression of scientists is strongly influenced by the characters she sees in pop culture. Yet a comprehensive study of scientist and engineer characters across television and film, published in 2018, revealed that only 37% of these characters were portrayed by women. When scientist roles are portrayed predominantly by men, an entire theatrical subgenre—the stories of women scientists and engineers—is left on the cutting room floor.
Missing are the stories of women like Ada Lovelace, a mathematician in the 1800s who developed computer algorithms a century before modern computers existed. Barbara McClintock’s story starts with the study of maize genetics and ends with a plot twist about chromosome interactions during reproduction. The story of chemist Alice Ball is both impactful and tragic, as she developed an injectable treatment for leprosy just one year before her death at the age of 24. These are just three of the stories that have been left on the cutting room floor.
But the story about women calculating space flight trajectories felt familiar, didn’t it? That’s because it was brought to life by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe in the hit 2016 film Hidden Figures, which was praised as inspirational. Imagine how many young girls saw themselves in the faces of engineers and mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. The story of these engineers also inspired the International Visitor Leadership Program exchange initiative “Hidden No More,” which brings women leaders representing “hidden talent” in their home countries to the U.S. to explore efforts to prepare women and girls for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Women characters can and should represent a vast array of scientific and technological fields. In 2015, Nicole Kidman led the company of Photograph 51, a play about how chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix structure of DNA and received none of the credit for it. Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain were cast as astronaut and scientist, respectively, in the 2014 science fiction film Interstellar. In fact, Kidman, Hathaway, and Emma Watson are United Nations Goodwill Ambassadors whose artistic and advocacy endeavors have converged on women’s empowerment, including in science, technology, and innovation. (Watson—whose iconic role of Hermione Granger could draw parallels to animal scientists like Jane Goodall or Temple Grandin—has supported scholarships for women in science, technology, engineering, and math in recent years.)
The key here isn’t simply increasing the representation of women scientists and engineers on screen; it’s also about improving their representation. Pop culture has often portrayed women scientists as one-dimensional characters that perpetuate negative stereotypes. But when this pitfall is avoided and the portrayal is realistic, even favorable, the global scientific enterprise is better for it. In fact, fictional scientists like Amy Farrah Fowler (The Big Bang Theory), Temperance Brennan (Bones), and Dana Scully (The X-Files) have been cited by young girls as their inspiration for pursuing science and technology.
This is a good thing to know. It should inspire new ideas for television, film, books, and games. It will capture the imagination of storytellers looking for the “next” Hidden Figures. But it should also empower women and girls to tell their own stories of science, technology, and innovation. The Innovation Station: Creative Industry Lab here at the State Department works with creative industry collaborators to facilitate new avenues for this empowered storytelling. After all, if we share the triumphant stories of women in science, the girls of today will become unhidden figures of tomorrow.
For more from the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary, you can follow us on Twitter @STASatState.
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Science, Technology & Innovation Policy Adviser in the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State (STAS). She received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.