How Powerful Is The Female Role Model In STEM?

The number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is static or dwindling, depending on which set of statistics you look at. A 2015 UNESCO report states that 28% of researchers worldwide are women. Lack of workforce diversity has major implications for the development of STEM and humanity. Women use technology as much as – and in some areas more than – men, despite the perceived male ‘gadget’ culture. For example, women outnumber men on social media, online gaming and drive most online sales. We are the majority owners of Internet-enabled devices.

From a marketing and economic perspective alone, it would be foolish not have women working on the development of this technology. The long-held assumption that having female role models as a powerful way to get more women into STEM seems logical and obvious. Plenty exist, so why aren’t they having an impact?


Lone Wolves

In the past women in science were not seen as role models but ‘unicorns’, anomalies of their sex that other women could never hope to emulate and this was used as a tool to shut women out. It’s also an example of moral licensing, where one good deed allows people to engage in unethical behaviour they would otherwise avoid in fear of appearing immoral. So letting one woman study science allowed the establishment to show how progressive they were without opening up fully to women.

There are two forms of role models; culturally ‘famous’ ones who may inspire a general interest, and more direct role models; teachers and fellow workers. With a quarter of people unable to name a female scientist, direct role models are many people’s major influence on their career aspirations. Historically, many female scientists were encouraged (or granted) to persue their careers by husbands and fathers already working in the field. Examples of this go as far back as Hypatia of Alexandria, who followed her father Theon into mathematics and philosophy. Tragically her influence was so strong that she was brutally murdered by a mob who wrongly thought she was preventing peace between opposing civil and religious leaders of Alexandria.

Hypatia of Alexandria, Mathmetician and Philosopher
Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in 2009’s Agora, ironically writing stuff down. None of her work
survives. Source: Hackbright Academy

Rise of the Nerds

Nowadays studies have shown that role model gender is perhaps a less important influence on a student’s self-belief than how much their role models embody STEM stereotypes. The typical stereotype includes being obsessed with computers, being socially awkward and liking science fiction or comic books (promoted in pop culture such as CBS’s ‘The Big Bang Theory‘).

One study found that when female students did not identify with this stereotype it reduced their self-belief more than if their role model was male. The researchers suggested that the stereotype being incongruous with the traditional female gender role could explain this, especially as men had little change in self-belief either way. Indeed this supposed conflict has been used to gate-keep ‘nerd-culture’ from women, exemplified by the fake geek girl/gamer girl meme.

The 'Fake Geek Girl' Meme
The ‘Fake Geek Girl’ Meme. Source: Know Your Meme.

There are STEM careers where women are the majority or soon will be, for example medicine, veterinary medicine, nursing and midwifery. Apart from medicine, these careers are not often seen as STEM at all but caring professions. Arguably nursing and midwifery, at least in the UK, is becoming a STEM field. A degree is necessary to enter it, and research analysis is the bedrock of study and practice. Many nurses and midwives now go on to post graduate study, research and teaching. Thus the problem isn’t just the number of women in STEM but the lack of recognition and value of women already working in these fields.

Kaylee from Firefly
‘Firefly’‘s Kaylee, obsessed with engines but definitely not socially awkward. Source: Women on TV.

Erased History

It simply isn’t possible to argue that humanity has done fine so far without the contributions of women; sadly like other areas of history, women have made astounding contributions to science that have been erased or outright stolen.

Rosalind Franklin is one of the most famous cases, who discovered the structure of DNA, though two men got the credit and crucially – the Nobel prize. If you want to learn more, Rachel Swaby’s ‘Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World’ is just one of a growing list of titles seeking to rectify this gigantic omission.

STEM stereotypes would not exist in the first place if female scientists were given more exposure and credit for their work. This would have a domino effect on the female gender role at large, making it more diverse or quashing it completely. However, if role model gender isn’t as important as previously thought, and anti-stereotyping is, this means we need supportive, team-playing men as role models too, with a range of interests. Rather than women changing themselves to adopt the culture, STEM recruiters need to look at technical ability instead of who fits into their club.

Women don’t just need token female role models in science, they need relatable ones. This is why equality and diversity programmes are so important. We need every woman’s contribution, women of colour; mothers; single women; loud women; quiet women; but above all strong women who refuse to be invisible.


Written by Amy Squire.

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Header image: Hedy Lamaar, actress and inventor of spread spectrum technology, sometimes called the ‘Mother of Wifi’ – Source.

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