One of my happiest moments recently was when my little sister told me she wants to be an engineer. An engineer! A mechanical engineer, she said, or maybe bio.
Little sister, please keep it that way.
My sister is 16, and she was at the forefront of my mind when Levo spoke with FEM, Inc.’s Founder and CEO Rachel Payne during yesterday’s Office Hours. Payne brought some troubling facts to light about the state of women in STEM fields, one of which was the lack of women in the industry in general. In 2009, only 24 percent of scientists and engineers were female. This number has remained practically unchanged for almost a decade.
That’s a long time, and little progress.
One of the biggest reasons for this problematic gender gap in STEM, said Payne, is the media’s portrayal of women in the field. Women scientists and engineers aren’t appearing often enough, she said, and when they are, they aren’t always shed in a positive light. Most often we see the over-sexed, buxom scientist, or the nerdy, unattractive scientist. The first is too alluring to be taken seriously, and the second is taken so seriously that she isn’t alluring. What does this say to young girls about becoming scientists when they grow up?
Payne co-authored a white paper on the subject, which tells us that “pervasive negative stereotypes about women and science and math constitute some of the most important and insidious roadblocks to attracting and retaining women in STEM fields.” This is an enormous problem, since “children are spending nearly half their waking hours consuming media.”
Women, as they appear in the media, are usually put into “boxes,” said Payne. They are categorized into things they can be and do. This homogenous representation often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; without diversity in the way women are portrayed, girls can limit their own expectations. Then there are the expectations others have for them to take into account.
Honestly, I’m in awe of my little sister who marches to the beat of her own drum and who so naturally remains largely uninfluenced by media messages telling her what she can and can’t do. It doesn’t seem to be that way for many girls.
Media drives beliefs which drive behavior, according to Payne’s white paper, and she said we need to start by moving beyond a reactionary position when it comes to these portrayals.
“The media needs to portray women in not just a positive light, but the reality of what we are,” she told Levo. If content producers could see a whole new market they could reach by creating better, more diverse content, it might incentivize them to stray from negative stereotypes. “[Doing so will] create an inspirational and empowering experience. We need to aggregate our demands, watch and share the positive content, and create a movement behind it.”
Get more inspiration from Rachel Payne by watching her Office Hours with Levo: