Women To Watch: Why “Character” Matters

Popular entertainment lags behind the reality of women’s progress: only 16.3% of characters with STEM jobs in family films were women (none of them were main characters); in reality, women comprise 24% of the STEM labor force. By Rachel Payne (Founder & CEO, FEM Inc.)

Today is International Women’s Day and March is women’s history month - and lately we have been making a LOT of history!

At a time when more female voices are being heard on critical issues (VAWA, 1 Billion Rising, Malala Yousafzai nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) and great gains have been made by women in the political sphere (20% female representation in the U.S. Senate), it’s important that we reflect on what systemic barriers still exist that hinder women’s advancement.

Rather than focus only on individual women’s gains, we need to recognize the institutional, cultural and social factors that prevent women from collectively attaining a larger share of leadership positions. Why is it that we still find ourselves, at 51% of the U.S. population according to Catalyst, persistently represented at around 18% of top positions across all categories of leadership and sectors?

What social and cultural biases persist that continue to make male leadership the “norm”?

As founders of FEM Inc., we understand that media and entertainment influence and shape perceptions, establishing cultural norms and reinforcing (or introducing) beliefs about what behaviors, social roles or professions are “appropriate”.

We know that stereotypes around gender and race can be particularly harmful, affecting everything from leadership aspirations to performance on a math test. Media has the potential to confirm and perpetuate these stereotypes, or to break them.

One concrete example is the continued lag in female representation in STEM careers and studies (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). The content programming and messaging that kids are exposed to daily that might actually undermine our nation’s ability to attract top talent in these fields.

According to a recent study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and media, only 16.3% of characters with STEM jobs in family films were women, and none of these were main characters - and yet in reality women comprise 24% of the actual STEM labor force. We are not just dealing with a slight misrepresentation, we are actually perpetuating a outdated reality that actually prevents women from achieving parity in one of the best job markets of the future.

In our research at FEM Inc., we found numerous examples of how media shapes perceptions of science and technology for girls and women. Perpetuation of gender stereotypes in media can undermine a girl’s pursuit of STEM studies and eventual career.

We also know that media consumption is at the highest levels ever in history; on average, children in the U.S. spend over seven hours per day watching TV and viewing content on mobile devices, according to the American Society of Pediatrics.

We also know that what children watch actually matters. Therefore, it’s important to consider what messages we are sending about their future prospects, personal opportunities and overall potential? Do they feel more empowered after watching TV or less?

Isn’t it time that we begin to understand this important link between what people view, the beliefs they internalize and the critical life decisions they make?

In answer to this challenge, FEM Inc. has decided to focus on showcasing the positive - to promote more positive, diverse, empowering portrayals of women and girls in popular entertainment. As a first step in doing this, we have launched our FEM Inc. “Women to Watch” List: Female TV Characters in Science & Tech, highlighting strong, female characters in science and technology careers.

Check it out and share with others!

Significant research shows that “character” matters. We hope that our “Women To Watch” lists help make entertainment a more empowering experience for girls and women.

When girls and women see more images of women in diverse roles the pernicious effects of stereotypes are diminished. By radically changing how we think about the content we watch and improving the discovery process, FEM Inc. seeks to exemplify strong, diverse, female characters. We hope that our “Women To Watch” lists makes entertainment an empowering experience.

Find more inspiring, female characters and new shows for you (or your children) to watch by joining our test group and gain early access to our product releases and updates. We would love your suggestions and comments and ask you to become part of the conversation.

About the guest blogger: Rachel Payne is Founder and CEO of FEM, Inc., an organization whose mission is to promote positive, diverse, empowering female portrayals in popular entertainment. Prior to starting FEM Inc., Rachel was Principal, Global Strategic Alliances, at Google. Previously, Rachel was Head of Industry for Technology, running cross-platform media sales teams for Google’s largest technology partners. Rachel joined Google on the founding team of Google.org. Follow her on Twitter at @rachelpayne.

Women 2.0 readers: How do we increase the presence of STEM women in entertainment?