The representation of women in Science Fiction.

Lab in Captain America (Image via Google Images: Find here)

The stereotypes surrounding the abilities of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are linked to the way women perceive their own abilities and the likelihood that they will pursue and maintain a career in these industries. Therefore, limiting the exposure to these stereotypes can be integral to improving the representation of women in STEM. The media plays an integral role in reinforcing or challenging these stereotypes, and I will be discussing the ramifications of the representation of women in science fiction in particular.
In science fiction, women are not only underrepresented, but are significantly less likely to be the main character or to represent a strong female role. The women in this genre more often than not assume a caring or passive role and are less likely to be played as ‘experts’ in their careers than male characters. These factors therefore not only are based around gender stereotypes that exists in society but actually emphasise them, and when repeatedly exposed to these gender stereotypes through media, can lead to ingraining of these expectations in the way women see themselves.

Prometheus (Image via Google Images: Find here)

Furthermore, these stereotypes echo many of the factors that limit women in their everyday lives. Women in the science fiction genre will often occupy lower skilled occupations in the character range and are usually noticeable due to their appearance or sexual attractiveness. This resembles the fact that women are more likely to occupy lower level jobs (this is linked to the way gender stereotypes effect the way women perceive their own potential and is the result of many barriers that limit women in the labour market) and are likely to be considered by their physical appearance before their academic capabilities or skills. Also, in media, the attractiveness of women is often portrayed as linked to their intelligence, with those considered sexually attractive being considered ‘bimbos’ and with intelligent women being portrayed as ‘frumpy’; this has therefore filtered into the everyday lives of women, providing a problematic issue for women with academic goals but being taught from a young age to value their physical appearance.

Dr Susan Calvin, I-Robot (Image via Google Images: Find here)

An excellent example of the trivialisation of women in science fiction is in the 2013 film Star Trek Into Darkness. Alice Eve played one of two female roles in the film, Dr Carol Marcus a molecular biologist. Even though her position in this role is rare and could be a powerful tool of representation for women in STEM careers, her integrity as a character is undermined by one scene (which for most people is the most memorable scene for her character in the whole film) in which she is shown in her underwear. The scene trivialises her abilities as a scientists and emphasises the importance of her physical appearance over her abilities as a strong female character as well as a women in STEM. This film is not the only example of this in the sic fi genre, the roles of women in these films are often undermined in this way (or by their role being the love interest in the storyline).

Dr Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness (Image via Google Images: Find here)

The role of media in influencing society and the permeation of stereotypes to audiences means that it could be a tool in increasing the representation of women in STEM. By increasing the representation of women in science fiction, improving the variety of roles for women in these films and monitoring the stereotypes present, there could be potential for providing positive role models for women in STEM and transform sci-fi into a platform that could contribute to increasing the representation of women in STEM on and off screen.

Are stereotypes limiting women in science?

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There is an incredible lack of women in science, and this is not because women are less able in this field, but is most likely a combination of various factors that lead to women not being supported, not being taken seriously and feeling that they do not have the abilities in this industry.

So what causes women to be taken less seriously in science?

The biggest factor is the influence of gender stereotyping on the expectations of the abilities of men and women. These include expecting men to be strong, intelligent and powerful and expecting women to be caring, motherly and subordinate. Obviously, these stereotypes are damaging to all genders, however, the stereotypes for women are particularly damaging, limiting their perception of their own abilities, preventing them from pursuing a career that goes outside the stereotype and can lead to women being perceived as a vulnerable group, contributing to very high rates of violence towards women.

These society wide stereotypes then integrate themselves into the way we perceive the abilities of women, especially in careers or academic achievements (in fact, this also contributes towards women underestimating their own career prospects and academic achievement, please see here for more information). This can not only prevent women from achieving their goals, but also can create barriers for women in their careers, for example in science.

Historically, science has been male dominated and this leaves the scientific community particularly vulnerable to the presence of somewhat unconscious gender discrimination. Thus, women often struggle in science, not only against factors such as the gender wage gap or the leaky pipeline effect, but also in the way their presence in the scientific field can be doubted and not taken seriously. 

The stereotype that women are not as intelligent as men or are bad at science can thus contribute to preconceived ideas about their abilities. For example, many women in science report the benefits of gaining a PhD or abbreviating their name in order to hide their female identity, as the title ‘Dr’ or absence of a female first name on documentation prevents people from unconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) judging their work based on their gender. Dame Stephanie Shirley, the founder of the software company F.I. Group, famously changed her name to ‘Steve’ to assist her in the business world of computer programming and help prevent gender stereotyping from effecting her work.

Furthermore, the pressure on women to look a certain way can be problematic for women in science. The way women look is often linked to the perception of their abilities, if a women is considered attractive or is dressed fashionably/un-modestly, her capabilities as a scientist are brought into question. Women are also equally punished if they are considered to dress ‘frumpily’ or in a way that is not considered sexually attractive. Thus, this seesaw of punishment for women based on the way they look can be particularly problematic when pursuing a career and when needing to be taken seriously, as your abilities can be trivialised and as a woman you can be seen as unimportant if you are not completing what should be your main goal in life, looking attractive.

It is really important that we address the presence of gender stereotyping in our society as it makes us conscious of its effects. And only then can we start to prevent the way these stereotypes are limiting the lives women go on to live; in science, academia or in any career.