STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) industries are among the most important sectors today. They thrive by innovative ideas, and the ability of workers to bring them into being. As such, they benefit enormously from attracting a more diverse range of workers, thinkers, and leaders.
While there’s been some improvement to women’s presence in STEM fields, we are still a long way from true equality. The gender gap is particularly prevalent in computer sciences and engineering, with the number of women in bachelor’s degree programs for those specialisations at around 18% and 20% respectively. Historically, STEM subjects haven’t been pitched to girls in school, and as a culture, we haven’t encouraged women or highlighted role models in nearly the same way that men and boys have enjoyed.
Pop culture plays an important role in encouraging women to enter into STEM industries, providing representation that can be empowering. We’re going to take a look at some of the movies that can promote female STEM workers, and inspire the innovators of the future.
A career in STEM gives us the potential to make a difference to the world around us. It’s easy to see just how vital it is to encourage a more diverse range of minds into these industries. If we’re to make a meaningful difference to all communities and cultures, we need the insights of people who have skin in the game.
Contact (1997) follows Ellie Arroway, a SETI scientist who discovers a signal from an alien intelligence that provides plans to create a vehicle to make first contact. This movie not only shows a woman working in scientific fields, but also her role in overcoming cultural, and political obstacles in order to make an impact on the world. One of the expected trends for women in STEM for 2020 includes addressing the need for more female scientists and researchers; movies like Contact that feature women making a difference are a key role in showing the incredible possibilities that a career in science can present.
Animation can help us explore possibilities that are ahead of our current technological curve, too. Big Hero 6 (2014) features two young female innovators at the heart of its tale. The chemistry expert Honey Lemon and the athletic engineer Go Go Tomago not only provide female role models but also illustrate how important diverse personalities are to STEM; it’s enhanced by a variety of other interests and passions. Watching the movie doesn’t need to be a passive exercise, though. Parents who have kids obsessed with tech like cellphones and TVs can add an extra element by guiding their kids to set up a smartphone as a TV remote control, giving the kids both control over the onscreen action and an opportunity to gain additional, fun programming skills. This simple engagement can lead to other, more complex and fascinating exercises!
In the Field
One of the enduring myths in science is that it results in being stuck inside a laboratory (not that this is necessarily a bad thing!). However, movies can go some way to illustrating that women’s lives in STEM fields can be varied, exciting, and rewarding.
Perhaps most relevant to our current COVID-19 crisis are the characters of Dr. Erin Mears in Contagion (2011)and Dr. Roberta Keough in Outbreak (1995). Both are portrayed as scientists working in the field with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). They use their STEM skills alongside investigatory and interpersonal abilities in order to combat the types of threats that are all too familiar to us today. Both movies do an excellent job of also showing both scientists as driven, articulate, and empathetic experts.
Movies can also help us to see STEM as a gateway to exploration. The character of Dr. Grace Augustine in Avatar (2009) exemplifies the scientist eager to step outside of her comfort zone and utilize STEM methods and equipment to learn more about unfamiliar spaces and diverse cultures. Though we are not quite at the stage of exploring other planets just yet, teachers and parents should introduce girls to exploratory technology, such as beginner drones, giving them the means to view the world from new perspectives and study otherwise difficult to reach places.
Historical Role models
While fiction is useful, we must also introduce girls and young women to movies that depict real-life innovators: women in STEM without whom our world would look very different. These role models aren’t always front and center in our culture or education, so we have a duty to highlight them where we can. These inspiring women show us all that barriers can be broken, and expectations overturned.
Hidden Figures (2016) is the story of mathematicians Katherine Goble and Dorothy Vaughan, and engineer Mary Jackson, African-American women who were instrumental in the U.S.’s success in the space race. However, the movie is more than just an illustration of women working in STEM fields and the challenges they face. It is a testament to the value of diversity, and a prime example of driven women making a difference to our development as a species. The depiction of Mary Jackson going to extreme lengths to teach herself programming should be an inspiration to self-educators everywhere.
Going further back into history, Enigma (2001) shows a glimpse into the pioneering women who were employed as codebreakers at the UK’s Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Much of popular culture surrounding the cracking of the Nazi Enigma machines has previously focused on the male contributors, such as Alan Turing. However, Enigma serves as an introduction to the 8000 women, known as Wrens, who served as cryptanalysts.
Our contemporary society is very much the product of innovators in STEM fields. However, in order to keep progressing in positive directions, we must close the gender gap in these industries. Movies can play a key role in introducing girls to role models, showing the true variety of areas in which they could be influential, and providing empowering representation.
Women Love Tech would like to thank Beau Peters for his article.
About Beau Peters
Beau Peters is a creative professional with a lifetime of experience in service and care. As a manager, he’s learned a slew of tricks of the trade that he enjoys sharing with others who have the same passion and dedication that he brings to his work.