Our students naturally look towards role models for inspiration in their careers. Of course, inspiration comes from many sources — pop culture included. While STEM is still a largely male-dominated field, it is clear that positive female representation in modern pop culture is changing that. The more we inspire our female students to emulate successful pop culture engineers, the more we can lessen the gender gap in STEM education.

Diversity in Education

Despite progress in recent years, disparities do exist between male and female participation in STEM. The differences become more pronounced after students graduate from K-12 graduation — for example, enrollment in high-level mathematics and science courses is similar between male and female students. The difference is much more evident with regards to computer science and engineering, where female students are significantly underrepresented.

Higher education is where these differences show most clearly. For example, women receive around 20% of the degrees awarded in computer sciences and engineering.

Importance of Female Role Models

Pop culture role models inspire our students on a grassroots level. What society views as normal, acceptable, and “right” is, in large part, a result of what pop culture shows us. The more media exposure is given to an idea, the stronger that idea takes root — especially in the K-12 age range.

How Does This Work?

The most famous example of the influence of pop culture on girls’ interest in STEM — the Scully Effect — shows that pop culture influences can change the perceived importance of a given field. When The X-Files was on television, character Dana Scully acted as the sole pop culture icon of women in STEM. Girls who watched the show invariably agreed — 63% of women familiar with Scully say “she increased their belief in the importance of STEM.”

The Effects of Pop Culture Role Models

Specifically, pop culture role models help educate our students on what is and is not important. When a popular female figure emphasizes engineering or computer science over traditional female career choices, she tells our female students that it’s perfectly fine to prioritize STEM. That’s what we want — a world where students follow their passions.

In a world dominated by male engineers and scientists, Scully showed young girls that they, too, can be smart, clever, and professional engineers. When positive traits are associated with a role model like Scully, good things result. After all, children best emulate the role models they can see.

Modern Representation of Girls in STEM and Pop Culture

While Scully is a great example of a 90s female icon, she is hardly relevant to our current generation of students! New times require new icons — Black Panther’s Shuri is an excellent example. Intelligent, witty, and never afraid to speak her mind, Shuri shows female students are more than just geeky caricatures.

It’s difficult to say if girls are ‘sufficiently’ represented in STEM pop culture now compared to the past, but the trend is clear — more empowered engineers are certainly roaming around. Between Shuri (Black Panther), Scully (X-Files), Engineer Barbie, and Rey (Star Wars), it’s clear progress has been made. Girls today have more examples of successful women in STEM to emulate.

Of course, until the common image of “engineer” changes from man-in-hardhat to something a little less restrictive, there’s plenty of work to be done.

Inspiring Interest in STEM

Inspiration begins with emulation. When female students are exposed to empowered, intelligent, stereotype-breaking engineers, they find their interests validated — that’s invaluable. The more we break down these nonsensical gender stereotypes, the better prepared our students will be for modern, competitive careers.

Real World Learning Matters

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