November 29, 2023

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

by Mikayla Hu (1 March 2023)

Who pops in your head when you think of a lead scientist in a science fiction film? Some answers would probably be those astronauts from Interstellar or 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Tony Stark and Bruce Banner a from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Those characters, however, have one thing in common that is usually not focused on: their gender. Female characters less frequently lead science fiction movies and even more so hardly portrayed as scientists, engineers, or have any STEM background.

Out of the 116 AI scientists/engineers identified in films, only nine were women. A study published in February examined how female scientists are underrepresented in sci-fi films. Particularly, the study focused on movies engaged with artificial intelligence from 1920 to 2020, and some movies included had the highest gross in the UK and US. The women portrayed in the films consisted of seven human scientists/engineers, one alien, and one entity (identified as female) leading a scientific corporation. Of these nine women, five of them worked for a man in their movie, was a child, or was a partner of a senior male AI engineer. Which means very few were leading the industry in their respective movie.

This majority male lead industry, at least in films, has shaped public perception of the STEM, or in this example, AI industry. The underrepresentation of female scientists in sci-fi films reported by this study can result from the stereotypes and gender inequality in real-life science practices, which was described by Dr Kanta Dihal, a co-author of the study,  in The Guardian as “art-mimicking-life.”

Dihal also told The Guardian how damaging this perception of a male only field could be. One is that women could be dissuaded of going into AI research if they think it is only for men. The second is that hiring panels, who have only perceived men as researchers from films, might a subconscious bias of men being a better fit for their firms. And this is the idea of office culture, where if a women does get into the AI industry, she may have to deal with many stereotypes and assumptions that have been perpetuated by films.

This just means there is a need for diversity and understanding in how AI researchers are portrayed in film, which can apply to not just women in the field. The media can influence this perception, so just be aware of how the movie your watching may be portraying scientists.