The Pop Culture Corrective: How Entertainment Can Show Girls a STEM Future

Women currently hold less than 25%  of STEM careers, so it’s almost a reflex to categorize STEM as a “career field for men.” But why—after years of progressive strides for women—are there so few of us working in STEM industries? Partly, it's a failure of imagination.

A study conducted by sociologist Catherine Riegle-Crumb found the key reason for the gender divide is not a biological difference, but rather the perceived cultural norm. If young girls don’t see diverse, successful women in fields like physics or engineering, they are less likely to pursue those careers themselves.

As an admissions director at a wholly-STEM university, I have the opportunity to interact with many young women pursuing their dreams in male-dominated fields. But the number of male applicants—and enrolled students—makes it clear that the gender gap is still very prominent. While the change won’t happen overnight, there is a progressive movement within pop culture toward accurately representing women in STEM. Here are some examples:

 

When Hollywood Gets It Right

One of the most popular movies in 2016 was Hidden Figureswhich earned $163.1 million at the box office and out-grossed “La La Land.” While it’s rare to have a female lead, it’s almost unheard of to have three African-American women in STEM as the lead characters in a blockbuster.

The Oscar-nominated biopic tells the story of Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician for NASA, and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson. The movie explores how this group of women — employed by NASA as “human computers”— directly contributed to John Glenn’s space endeavors.

By highlighting racial and gender stereotypes, Hidden Figures has reignited the conversation surrounding female inequality in the workforce. And while the barriers to entering a career in STEM are still present, the movie showed what can happen when we look past external appearances and, instead, celebrate a person’s skills.

 

Fashion Forward

STEM, meet gym. Gym, meet cell-inspired patterns on workout clothes.

What began as a passion project of pre-medical student Lizzie Cochran is now a national brand making waves within both the STEM and athleisure communities. Created for a life in motion, Epidemia Designs is an athletic apparel brand that features biological-themed images and prints on their clothing (think cells, muscle fibers and tendons on your yoga pants).

Cochran, now a medical student at University of Texas Southwestern, said that while she was always interested in medicine, she was also a “girlie-girl.” She didn’t want other women in STEM to sacrifice or change their personalities, and Epidemia Designs blended her two passions.

For every item sold, Epidemia Designs donates to organizations that support women in STEM, such as Girlstart.

 

Engineering Toys for Girls

Known as the “pink toy disruptor,” GoldieBlox is breaking gender stereotypes as the world’s first female engineer figure. Creator Debbie Sterling, who received an engineering degree from Stanford University, said she wanted to “introduce the joy of engineering at a young age.”

The toys, designed to empower girls to pursue their dreams, have been adapted into apps, books, videos and merchandise.

 

Doctor Dreams

Similar to GoldieBlox, there’s another STEM-based character soaring to popularity with young girls. The Disney Junior show Doc McStuffins features an African-American girl, Dottie, who plays veterinarian to her stuffed animals.

With her signature white lab coat, “Doc” is inspiring young girls to pursue a career in medicine — even sparking an outfit trend within schools. The Doc brand has grown to include toys like pretend syringes, otoscopes, and stethoscopes, as well as other merchandise and online games.

 

Be Bold (and Public) for Change

There’s no doubt women are resetting the standard for a career in STEM. Yet, as we continue to break glass ceilings and normalize our presence in the STEM community, it’s crucial to push our work into the limelight. How else will young girls follow in our footsteps if they don’t see our actions front and center? A community of powerful women will lead us farther than if we go at it alone.


As the Director of Admissions at Florida Polytechnic University, Lauren Willison is responsible for supporting the Vice Provost of Enrollment in managing recruitment efforts. She develops and coordinates on- and off-campus events, as well as manages the campus visit experience.