June 17, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Rachel David on gender equality in STEM, and the need for role models
Captain Sarah Deal, the first female Marine Corps helicopter pilot, flying a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter

“Look, we exist and we are not weird.”

This was the message Heather Williams wanted to get across when she started ScienceGrrl 3 years ago. ScienceGrrl was put together in response to the much derided EU campaign ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’, which tried to entice girls into STEM careers using images of lipstick, heels and lots of pink. “Real female scientists are so much more interesting than this, they are more complicated, they have interests outside of work, they’re generally engaging, likeable people,” says Williams, a medical physicist at Central Manchester University Hospitals.

The problem, she believes, is that girls can’t relate to what they perceive scientists to be like. “They can see themselves […] as being a model or an actress or something like that, but science is something way beyond, its for super clever people.” This is why, as part of their efforts, they showcase real women scientists from a wide range of backgrounds and with varied interests.

ISS women 9451986606_055c247968_z
Four women on the International Space Station in 2010. Pictured clockwise from the lower left are NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23 flight engineer; NASA astronaut Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Naoko Yamazaki and NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson.

And this idea is reflected in recent research by Elizabeth Daniels, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Colorado, and Aurora Sherman, Associate Professor of Psychology from Oregon State University. When they showed images of women in appearance-based roles (actress Jennifer Aniston and model Heidi Klum) and non-appearance-based roles (former HP CEO Carly Fiorina and military pilot Sarah Deal Burrow) to teenage girls, they found that the girls considered the CEO and military pilot to be good role models. However, they thought that the actress and model were more likeable, competent and, crucially, more similar to themselves.

“The CEO and military pilot positions may be perceived as unattainable, and that could be why girls gave these women less positive evaluations,” comments Daniels, who studies the effects of media on girls’ development. “It is more common to see women depicted in media as models and actors, which could explain why those women received more positive evaluations.”

Daniels thinks that depicting more women in such non-appearance-based roles more frequently in the media should help them seem less exceptional. Anne-Marie Imafidon, a technology professional who started Stemettes 2 years ago, agrees. “The media needs to have more [female] STEM roles in films and TV show. This will normalize that kind of role.” She gives the example of the popular film The Social Network: although female coders did contribute to setting up Facebook, “the only girls in that movie were the subjects of ‘Hot or Not’.”

Fabiola Gianotti is an Italian particle physicist, whohas been selected as the next (and first female) Director-General of CERN, starting on 1 January 2016

But normalizing the idea of women in STEM is not the only issue – both Williams and Imafidon comment that women at the top of their careers tend to be used as role models, which contributes to the view that these roles are unattainable, or at the very least, very far into the future. This is exemplified by 60-year-old Carly Fiorina from Daniels’ study. “It’s not to ignore the contribution of senior women, but have them as part of a bigger mix. There are young women in business and science who are doing exceptional things. You don’t have to wait until you are 50 to do something significant,” says Williams.

This is part of what Imafidon is trying to achieve with the OUTBOX Incubator programme this summer. This residential programme, which is open to girls aged 11–22 from across the EU, will provide mentoring, support and seed funding for ideas that can eventually lead to tech start-ups. It will also be filmed as a documentary by an independent company. “That will be our contribution, […] showing that you don’t have to necessarily even be a really senior women in industry to be a role model, you can be 15 years old, running your own tech start-up and also be a role model.”

The plan is both ambitious and impressive, but it will highlight to young Stemettes that being a woman in STEM is not weird; they do exist and are just like normal people.

Rachel David is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Sarah Deal; Fabiola Gianotti (Wikimedia Commons); Women working on the ISS (Flickr.com; Creative Commons)