IWD2017: The scientific (role) model: Hollywood, girls & STEM

To celebrate International Women’s day, all week BlueNotes will be guest edited by experienced journalist and author Catherine Fox. We’ll be publishing content on women, their experience in the workplace and the future of equality as the world looks to #beboldforchange. We hope you enjoy it. #IWD2017

Here’s one to ponder: do TV and film reflect and influence politics, business and society, or are we in society reflecting and influenced by what we watch? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is a bit of both.

" How novel to see a strong, successful, principled woman giving children license to be whatever they want to be."
Matt Nicol, BlueNotes contributing editor

Wall Street’s  Gordon Gekko – the archetype 80s trader/corporate raider – was an amalgam of real life players. Did the character serve as inspiration for others - such as Jordon Belfort, who took his first steps towards becoming The Wolf of Wall Street when he joined LF Rothschild as a stockbroker? And Belfort’s story, in turn, made it to the big screen. 

Recently, I watched actor Téa Leoni as fictional US Secretary of State Senator Elizabeth McCord encouraging a group of young school girls in Tonga.

“You keep on ignoring all the people telling you that science isn’t for girls,” she said. It was as a positive message. How novel to see a strong, successful, principled woman giving children license to be whatever they want to be.

Sure, it was a little heavy handed. But nobody watches Madam Secretary expecting The West Wing. And maybe, just maybe, among the show’s viewership there’s a young, intelligent girl who will hear these words, stay the course and pursue her fullest potential in this field.

Let’s consider for a moment how many women scientists are ‘suddenly’ gracing our screens, big and small, to remind us women can do STEM.

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Source: A, B, C, D, E

Is it a problem that, of the above, only Katharine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson are non-fictional characters? Or that Hidden Figures (based on a true story) celebrating the unsung team of African-American women who provided NASA with important mathematical capabilities to launch their first successful space missions?

Probably not. Not when we consider one thing Hollywood does very well is depict the world as we’d most like it to be – which doesn’t stop it shaping the way the world is and will be.

We can enjoy the moments that blur the lines can’t we? Like in Halt + Catch Fire when Cameron announces she wants to name the impossibly elegant operating system she devised ‘Lovelace’ (except  when I am forced to explain to colleagues of a certain generation it’s a tribute to Ada Lovelace - the inventor of computer programming).

THE PROBLEMBy now we all know the problems with equality in STEM…covered at length here in BlueNotes (How do we fix IT’s gender problem?The little things we can do to get more girls in STEM and Why STEM needs more than Pink Lego and ‘Girl Power’)  but also widely elsewhere (ForbesFast Company and The New York Times).

It’s a problem being keenly felt among technology companies. Google, who recently made it known their situation essentially mirrored the industry are among the latest to take action.

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According to NPR, today women make up just 18 per cent of computer science degrees, down from 37 per cent, 30 years ago.

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It may come as a surprise to many – it certainly did to me – to learn the gender imbalance in STEM wasn’t always a problem.

The documentary Code – debugging the gender gap details how women were very much a part of the early industry. And points to the Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and the women programmers of ENIAC (one of the earliest electronic general-purpose computers made) as women pioneers – since overlooked – who made impressive contributions towards defining and expanding the fledgling computing industry.

The numbers of women working in technology continued to rise and peaked at in the early 80s. So what happened? Hollywood – or at least the film contends the drop-off coincides with the emergence of a new stereotype: the nerd.

The film points to Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science and War Games as the first wave of films and TV characters which helped cement the image of computer experts: socially awkward, bespectacled (with tape holding their glasses together) bow-tie and pocket-protector wearing … and male.Non-english speaking countries where these films may not have been so readily available report better numbers of women in STEM (30 per cent of programmers in India are women compared to 21 per cent in the US.) 

Large and small screen representation of women seems to be changing, albeit in small increments – less orange, and more STEM, is the new black. Every reminder that STEM is actually pretty cool and women can do it too, is a step by Hollywood to address past wrongs.

Matt Nicol is a contributing editor at BlueNotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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