A woman science teacher watches as two young girls measure colored liquids in beakers.

Portray Her 2.0: An Analysis of 15 Years of Women in STEM On-Screen, 2007–2022

Geena Davis Institute and IF/THEN

Has the on-screen representation of women in STEM changed since 2018, when the Institute released its report Portray Her: Representations of Women STEM Characters in Media? To answer that question, we partnered with If/Then®, an initiative of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, to produce our new report — Portray Her 2.0: An Analysis of 15 Years of Women in STEM On-Screen, 2007–2022 — which refreshes the analysis of STEM characters on-screen by looking at the past five years of TV and film. The subject of this study is if and how entertainment media perpetuates STEM representation inequalities. In the U.S., women remain sorely underrepresented in STEM professions, and even when their representation improves, other inequalities emerge, including those related to job retention, pay, and status. Our previous report, which looked at the representation of women in STEM in film and TV from 2007–2017, found that women in STEM were underrepresented relative to men about 2 to 1, and that most female STEM characters worked in the life sciences (primarily in the medical field), thereby portraying limited possibilities for audiences. In this new study, we again look at the representation of women in STEM in film and TV from the past five years (2018–2022). We also include a survey of girls and young women (those in middle-school, high-school, and undergraduate age groups), to better understand their STEM experiences and the role of fictional STEM characters on their interests and ambitions. For a review of all findings, please read the full report. We present key findings here:

We present the following recommendations to disrupt pernicious STEM stereotypes in hopes of ushering in a more diverse STEM workforce.

  1. Diversify STEM careers for women on-screen. STEM careers are multifaceted and diverse, but research shows gender gaps vary greatly, depending on the field. This report revealed that in reality and on-screen, women are best represented in life sciences, such as medical careers. But showing girls and women with an array of STEM interests and careers, such as engineering, computer science, and mathematics, will broaden girls’ and young women’s imaginations about what is possible. Branch out beyond the life sciences when thinking about female characters’ STEM interests and professions.
  2. Don’t overlook representation in minor and background roles. Girls and young women think it’s more important than ever to see women in STEM (up from 51% in 2018 to 71% in 2023). But our survey suggests they may overestimate gender imbalance in STEM on-screen relative to reality. We encourage creators to think broadly about representation and include women not only in leading and supporting roles but also in minor and background roles to further disrupt the perception that STEM professions are dominated by men.
  3. Intersectionality matters. Our survey found that STEM characters of color were more influential for girls and young women of color than for white STEM characters. When casting female STEM characters, remember the significance of race, gender, ability, LGBTQIA+ identity, body size, and age, and portray women in STEM on-screen with diverse identities.
  4. Model work–life balance among STEM characters. Perceptions that STEM careers are family-friendly are increasing (from 49% in 2018 to 56% in 2023) but remain relatively low. Model work–life balance to highlight the reality of STEM professionals of all genders, many of whom are primary caregivers in their families.
  5. Disrupt gender stereotypes when writing STEM characters. STEM characters that possess mainly male-coded traits, such as reason, rationality, autonomy, and lack of empathy, reinforce gender bias in STEM portrayals. Create dynamic depictions of STEM character personalities by showing men and women with male- and female-coded traits, and recognize the value within each of these categories.
  6. Portray STEM skills as learned, not innate. Show STEM characters learning in the classroom, making mistakes, and building skills. Our study shows that STEM was sometimes shown as an innate ability, which can reinforce the idea that STEM experts come to that skill naturally, and this notion can discourage young people from pursuing STEM if they struggle even a little. Studies show that perceiving STEM as an innate rather than learned skill disproportionately discourages female students and students of color from pursuing STEM professions. Although STEM savants can be fun characters, their overrepresentation can have negative repercussions.
  7. Write STEM characters and careers in ways that appeal to young girls and women by highlighting collaboration and the ways STEM is important to society. A powerful way to attract girls and young women to STEM careers is by showing that these fields align with values of girls and young women. Based on findings from this study, we suggest showing STEM industries and careers as more family-friendly, STEM work as in pursuit of the greater social good, professionals working together, and environments that are safe for women and girls from marginalized communities (e.g., disabled women, women of color).
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