On TV and in real life, there’s a dearth of young women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While a few bygone shows exposed the barriers against geeks in general (think My So-Called Life’s Brian Krakow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Willow, and Freaks and Geeks’s Lindsay Weir), contemporary television shows fail to portray the bumpy path that exist specfically for young women male-dominated science and math career tracks. I say we need more characters like Willow.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, high schooler Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan) is the gang’s resident smarty pants. While she receives validation for her intellect from her school’s computer instructor, Ms. Calendar, and the magical cadre’s mentor Giles, Willow also faces rejection from Sunnydale High’s in-group, headed by Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter). Here, we see the mixed messages that real-life young female tech talents hear early on: You can either be teacher’s pet or one of the popular kids. Willow battles (literally and figuratively) for acceptance, and ultimately she grows comfortable with her mathematical—and later, Wiccan—powers. However, not all girls in real life fare so well.
Offscreen, peers and authorities often enforce restrictive gender roles that make young women feel discouraged from pursuing math and science career paths. This is well-documented, it’s even something the military has recently taken on. The study Explaining the Gender Gap in Math Test Scores explains:
A report entitled “Women’s Experiences in College Engineering,” funded by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation, writes that the exit of many young women is not driven by ability, but rather that this decision is influenced by…negative aspects of their schools’ climate, such as competition, lack of support, and discouraging faculty and peers.
“If you’re in an environment when you’re an extreme minority, you feel the burden of representing a really large group,” adds Vanessa Hurst, co-founder of Girl Develop It, which provides affordable and accessible hands-on instruction to women who want to learn software development. “If you’re the only woman in the room, everything you say might be ‘what women are like.’ It just makes you less comfortable asking questions, [though] men and women both do it.”
On top of that, even when women they manage to stick with math and science long enough to get a diploma, academic institutions have a lousy record of hiring women, in part because of an institutional bias against people who are care-givers.
While shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Freaks and Geeks accurately depict barriers against young women in these careers, series including 24 and Dollhouse barely gesture toward the prevalence of these sexist cultural messages. On Dollhouse, we meet Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau), a brilliant neuroscientist who brainwashes—er, programs—human subjects to carry out often illicit actions for the Dollhouse’s clients. When Topher, a male programmer from another Dollhouse branch, first meets Bennett, he’s taken by surprise. He’d heard her name before but assumed that she was a man. But because she’s a woman, and a beautiful one at that, he posits that she’s just a doll programmed to work as a scientist. He even tries his disruptor device on her, which would have wiped a doll’s memory like a magnet would a floppy disc’s. When she’s unaffected by the disruptor, only then does he accept that this woman can possibly be a genius scientist.
Sure, it’s great to see skilled science chicks on Dollhouse, 24, and The Big Bang Theory, but it’s shortsighted not to acknowledge how much these women are outliers—not due to paucity of female talent in their fields but because dudes like Dollhouse’s Topher often marginalize women in their profession.
Why should we worry about getting more women in the math and science fields? Because this growing high-paying sector not only allows women to rely on our intelligence rather than our sexuality, but also to earn salaries with less of a gender pay gap and to build the applications that we rely on every day. Not empowering women to succeed in this line of work does ourselves a disservice. It means perpetuating the status quo of overwhelmingly male-dominated tech culture and therefore prevents a diverse innovations that can only be borne from a diverse workforce.
According to NPR, “In order to boost the numbers of women who choose to go into [science and math], you have to boost the number of women who are in those fields.”
I don’t anticipate that fictional TV narratives will yield a solution, but perhaps real-life women-in-science programs like Girl Develop It, Girls Who Code, Ladies Who Code, PyLadies, Black Women in Computing, and Latinas in Computing can lead the way.