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No girls allowed: "Nerd” stereotype means fewer female engineers

Mon, 07/08/2013 - 9:29am
Kasey Panetta, Managing Editor

The Big Bang Theory — a television show that features four male scientists and engineers and an attractive blond waitress — is one of the top shows on TV. But a recent study has raised an interesting question: Does this show’s — and others like it's — depiction of what scientists and engineers look like actively discourage women from pursuing STEM degrees? According to the study, it might.

In 1972, women accounted for 3 percent of full-time science and engineering professors; by 1998, the number was at just 10 percent, according to the National Science Foundation. In 2010, the last year the NSF has data for, 51 percent of scientists and engineers working in science and engineering occupations were white males. Women made up just 28 percent of the total and minority women just 10 percent. When the numbers are divided by occupation, women make up just 12 percent of engineers.

Through a mixture of socialization and tradition, the engineering and science fields have always been male-dominated. In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on encouraging girls to pursue STEM degrees, but how engineers and scientists are depicted in the media could be playing a large role in discouraging the pursuit.

While men’s interest in computer sciences remains fairly stable across different studies, women’s interest tends to waver. In one study, when women read articles that suggested the stereotype — nerdy, white, not very social — fit real life, they were less likely to express an interest in pursuing the field when compared to women who read articles that said the stereotypes weren’t supported by real life. In a second study, researchers found that when asked to describe what they thought of as typical computer scientists, people reported traits that were “incompatible with the female gender role” like poor interpersonal skills and lacking an interest in anything other than computers. 

Obviously, those two studies just looked at computer scientists in general, but the conclusion — that media representation of the science and engineering fields are discouraging women from pursuing the field — rings true across the STEM interests.

Obviously, there are women — and men — that have no interest in pursuing a science or engineering profession. But, the concern is that girls who are potentially interested in a STEMs career will be turned off by the media depiction of what these jobs are like: boy’s clubs.

In turn, the study offers an interesting point: If society — in this case teachers, media, family, friends — are not actively encouraging women to pursue these degrees, the field itself loses out on the advantages that come from having a diverse range of genders, races, socioeconomically backgrounds, and points of view. We are, in fact, missing out on a potential treasure-trove of minds.

Luckily, the Obama administration is one that recognizes the importance of enacting policies and programs to help fix the disparity. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, and  White House Council on Women and Girls, has made its goal to get more girls interested in STEM occupations by hosting events and raising awareness. Pop-culture media cannot be the end-all, be-all of where girls are seeing engineers and scientists at work. 

In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “If we’re going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, we’ve got to open doors for 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.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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