Breaking Normal

Mass media’s influence on STEM careers for girls.

GUEST COLUMN | by Meghana Bhatt

CREDIT FEMAs First Lady Michelle Obama Stated on September 26, 2011:

If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone. We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Mass Media affects the way we view ourselves and how we view the rest of the world. It presents us with stories and images that influence how we develop our basic beliefs about the world. A 2010 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that children between the ages of 8 and 18 spent an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes a day consuming television and Internet media, that’s up from 6:21 in 2004.[i] Children are spending nearly half their waking hours consuming media and that number is rapidly increasing with the proliferation of Internet-enabled devices.

There is an exciting opportunity for content creators and producers to create a wide variety of female role models in STEM fields to help expand the choices women and girls give themselves by breaking some of these harmful stereotypes.

One of the most important ways in which media shapes our perception of the world is by helping to build or break stereotypes. Stereotypes are particularly important to women and minorities. Think about it, we continually see rich and diverse imagery of the Caucasian male experience. However, this range of attention and representation simply doesn’t exist for women and other minorities. If the images a young girl sees of women consistently fall into a limited number of categories, she will have limited beliefs about who she can become. A recent study showed that television exposure was positively correlated with self-esteem for young white boys, but negatively correlated with self-esteem for young girls. This process is of particular interest with regard to the large gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Stereotypical portrayals of women can significantly impact people’s beliefs about women. A recent study showed that the presence of strong, positive female role models in scripted dramas could decrease the negative emotional effects of sexually violent media, while decreasing anxiety in women and sexist attitudes held by men.[ii] Another study found that viewing media images of powerful women decreased women’s negative self-perceptions and increased women’s leadership aspirations.[iii]

Media portrayals of people in science and math tend to support specific, gendered stereotypes about what a scientist “looks like.” One of the most popular depictions of science on TV today is “The Big Bang Theory”. Although the show has successfully introduced more female scientist characters in recent seasons – the show often conforms to the stereotype that scientists are socially awkward, and male. The belief that women are inherently worse at math and science is widespread. In reality, girls consistently perform as well or better than boys at math and science through elementary school and into middle school.[iv]

The common stereotype, however, that girls are inherently inferior in science and math actually affects how girls perform in the classroom by diminishing the belief in their own abilities and their future, potential capabilities. The implicit associations of young men as “naturally gifted” or “superior” in these fields gives them the freedom to pursue their individual interests whereas, when young women’s associations are self-limiting, this directs them away from STEM occupations.[v]

Further studies show that positive female role models significantly moderate, and sometimes eliminate the effects of negative cultural stereotypes around gender.[vi][vii][viii][ix] Increasing representation of women in these fields, even with something as simple as a textbook image or a video with a gender-balanced crowd, can help mitigate these effects.[x],[xi]

There is an exciting opportunity for content creators and producers to create a wide variety of female role models in STEM fields to help expand the choices women and girls give themselves by breaking some of these harmful stereotypes. Given the increasing amount of time spent by children and adolescents are consuming mass media, we have a unique and powerful opportunity to present young girls with different images of women and STEM. A recent report from Nielsen suggested that young women (between the ages of 13 and 34) respond more strongly to “aspirational” images of women in advertisements.[xii] A statement like this from an influential authority in advertising and marketing implies that more advertisements should be aimed at helping young women visualize new models for professional success and personal happiness.

We must take action; without conscious effort to change the environment, media is more likely to reinforce stereotypes than break them. The people who create and distribute media are part of the same culture, and prey to the same subconscious biases as the rest of us. We need to inform content creators about the real effects of the underrepresentation of women in science. More importantly – we must demand to see more women in diverse roles. If we direct our attention and our viewership to the existing TV shows, movies and video content that support and promote strong female characters and role models in STEM – the supply will follow market demand, to the benefit of all.


[i] Rideout, V.J., U.G. Foehr, and D.F. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year Olds, in A Kaiser Family Foundations Study, K.F. Foundation, Editor 2010.

[ii] Ferguson, C.J., Positive Female Role-Models Eliminate Negative Effects of Sexually Violent Media. Journal of Communication, 2012. Early Edition.

[iii] Simon, S. and C.L. Hoyt, Exploring the effect of media images on women’s leadership self-perceptions and aspirations. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 2012. Early Edition.

[iv] Gender Equity in Education: A Data Snapshot. 2012; Available from:

[v] Steffens, M.C. and P. Jelenec, Separating Implicit Gender Stereotypes regarding MAth and LAnguage: Implicit Ability Stereotypes are Self-Serving for Boys and Men, but not for Girls and Women. Sex Roles, 2011. 64: p. 324-335.

[vi] Dasgupta, N. and S. Asgari, Seeing is believing: Exposure to counterstereotypic women leaders and its effect on the malleability of automatic gender stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004. 40: p. 642-658.

[vii] Marx, D.M. and J.S. Roman, Female Role Models: Protecting Women’s Math Test Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2002. 28: p. 1183-1193.

[viii] Lockwood, P., “Someone Like Me Can Be Successful”: Do College Students Need Same-Gender Role Models? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2006. 30: p. 36-46.

[ix] McIntyre, R.B., et al., A Social Impact Trend in the Effects of Role Models on Alleviating Women’s Mathematics Stereotype Threat. Current Research in Social Psychology, 2005. 10(9).

[x] Good, J.J., J.A. Woodzicka, and L.C. Wingfield, The effects of gender stereotypic and counterstereotypic textbook images on science performance. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2010. 150(2): p. 132-147.

[xi] Murphy, M.C., C.M. Steele, and J.J. Gross, Signaling Threat: How Situational Cues Affect Women in Math, Science, and Engineering Settings. Psychological Science, 2007. 18 (10): p. 879-885.

[xii] Gender Divide: Reaching Male vs. Female Millenials. nielsenwire 2012; Available from:

Meghana Bhatt, Ph.D., is co-founder and Chief Data Scientist at FEM Inc.  She earned her doctorate in Economics at California Institute of Technology and her AB Mathematics at Harvard. Link with her here.

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