STEM Representation in Literature

Media is full of negative conations about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths)- they can only do biology, men are better, the STEM character is the least attractive and clearly undatable. I struggle to find female STEM role models in media, and finding positive female STEM role models? Yeah, nearly impossible.

For my A Level years I went to a single sex school. It was the first year my school ran computing A Level and I was the only pupil doing it. I was super worried I’d be the first and last to do the subject, that there’d be no interest once I left. I ran coding classes for different levels: two in the senior school, one in the junior school, slowly and surely getting more girls into the computing room at lunch. You wouldn’t believe my joy when a girl in a younger year at school messaged me on Facebook a few years ago saying she’d taken computer science at the same university I had. That there’d been three doing computing A Level in her year. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made a difference.

But can the literature change the gender imbalance in computing? I’d say yes, it definitely did for me. My first real role model was probably Violet Baudelaire. Orphan, inventer and heroine of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Before I could even tie my shoelaces I was trying to tie my bob haircut up with string, to no avail, like her. In my eyes she was the epitome of cool: she used wacky inventions to save the day, she was the one her brother turned to when they were in a tight spot, she was everything ten year old me wanted to be.

Wanting to be an inventor like Violet changed my career path. I got an old excise book and drew pictures of inventions I planned to make one day. I tried to become a computer guru and became semi established with this title in year seven. I remember one particularly taxing ask by my aging English teacher: to get a digital version of a picture a girl had printed out for homework up on the projector. Sadly my ICT skills didn’t stretch to plucking search terms out of students’ heads and I failed to produce the image, a few Google Image searches later. Nevertheless, it will be no surprise to any of my teachers that I became a computer scientist. It always appeared to be on the cards.

Until it didn’t. At fourteen I went to a new school and suddenly computing wasn’t a subject. We learnt about Word and PowerPoint and ‘cool’ subjects became Art and History. It wasn’t just school that changed for me- it was media too. Violet was stuck in my past and my role models became Katniss and Tris. Computer science was restricted to The Big Bang Theory where it was ridiculed, because what kid wants to grow up to be like Leonard, at best? It didn’t look like the future, or the way to solve problems, it became another reason to laugh at the sad nerd in the corner.

I still had a love of engineering, a gutteral sense that it was for me, but I’ve no doubt I wouldn’t have questioned my decision, my place and right to take the subject, if I’d still been reading about Violet, kicking Olaf’s butt and saving her siblings with her mad inventions. And I wouldn’t have even consider computing if it wasn’t for characters like her. The interest she drummed in me meant my dad offered to teach me how to write my first computer program when he saw me reading a massive copy of “Programming for Dummies” that I’d gotten out the library.

Katniss and Tris, they taught a teenage me that women can do anything. But does literature tell kids that they can be anything?

Literature definitely has before. Take Hermione from Harry Potter. How many girls grew up under her fantastic influence, showing young women that brains is a form of strength. Characters that confront rather than conform to negative stereotypes can make a big difference. Or at least, they did for me.

I know not every novel can be about a female engineer, and wouldn’t want them all to be. If a debut is about a lawyer, or a warrior, or a writer or even a frog, then that’s fine. But there could be some small changes. A character gets advice from a wizened old professor at one point? Why can’t they be a woman. There’s a side character who happens to be in STEM? Make them strong. Attractive. Not that nerd with glasses and low self esteem. And there should never be demeaning and derogatory jokes about women in STEM (and yes, I have genuinely seen this in modern literature). Five minutes of laughter isn’t worth the terrible stereotype being instilled in young audiences.

I don’t have any statistics on whether media makes a difference to young people’s career paths. I don’t know how to magically change the public’s perception of women in STEM, I don’t even know if it’ll ever be a social norm for women to take STEM subjects. But I can’t help that think that maybe, just maybe, making it a fictional social norm could be a good place to start?

21 thoughts on “STEM Representation in Literature

  1. This is such an interesting post Hannah and so very true. Thanks for sharing your personal story, it shows how significant it is to have female characters who are interested in science and aren’t presented as weirdos. Obviously there are unconscious biases but I wonder if it’s partly because writers tend to come from an arts background and tend not to think about it as much?

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      1. I read a lot of Jacqueline Wilson growing up and you realise after a while that all of her main characters are like her – artsy, like English and Art but hate Maths, same as Jackie. But also, it’s hard to write about science/maths when you’re not familiar with it? I don’t know, it’s a theory!

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      2. Yeah, that’s definitely true! We’ve got to battle our biases (both conscious and unconscious) on that front!

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  2. As someone currently studying a combined science degree (maths, phys, chem), I see this bias everywhere. I’m on a tiny little course (36 people across all 7 combinations) and we have an amazing ~50:50 gender balance, but this all changes when we join the ‘regular’ science students, particularly physics.

    I was so lucky that my all-girls school really championed STEM subjects, and the teachers went above and beyond to support those of us who wanted to head into the sciences. Not all schools are like that, but I agree that media plays the bigger role in shaping girls’ expectations of whether it’s ‘cool’ to be a scientist.

    When I do see that rare lady-in-STEM character, she’s always the side-character there to help the (usually male) hero out without much more to her. I would love to see more scientific ladies take centre stage of books – along with more accurate scientific depictions (because movies and TV often get it laughably wrong). Who says we can’t save the day with a lab, a wealth of knowledge and our minds? The people who solve the major world problems facing us today (like climate change or antibiotic resistance) are going to be scientists after all!

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    1. Wow that’s impressive! My course had a terrible gender bias, there were 300 people and like 15 girls 😬

      My school wasn’t bad with STEM, they did try, but they could have been better. I think schools are improving, but media doesn’t seem to have noticed the issue at all, which is why I’m always telling people. I think content creators don’t realise they are making negative stereotypes.

      Yeah I agree! The STEM characters are never very likable and I can’t recall many novels where they are at the centre, except maybe Spider Man. Definitely no girls at the centre

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      1. My course is very small, very new and very specialised. We all study at least two sciences (ranging from maths to biology to environment to psychology) and I think that’s one of the reasons there is such a good gender balance. I think a lot of girls like that breadth. It’s certainly what drew me to this course. And it’s less intimidating than being in the male-dominated main-stream physics.

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  3. I can’t like this enough! As a female organic chemist, I don’t see many females in my field, and I would love nothing more to see representation in books. It’s so rare to seeing chemists in books that I read, but when I do, I’m instantly in love.

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  4. Great post and so true! I had the privilege of reading two great characters and lovers of STEM recently, Dodger from Middlegame and Rhen from To Best the Boys. There is so little and accurate representation of girls with love for math and sciences it is depressing. But these last two stories were beacons of hope for me. I find that often when a girl with a love for STEM is represented the author wants you to like the character and think she is cool in spite of her being “nerdy” and loving STEM. Always the wrong message to send to girls and women. Thank you for sharing your personal story I agree wholeheartedly about your observations. It is time for literature and society to change. We need more wizened old women, science geniuses who are well adjusted human beings, and attractive engineers.

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  5. This is such a good point to bring up! I always hated Big Bang Theory for this among other reasons, but I never really noticed how few lady scientists there were in the books I was reading. Maybe partially because I don’t read many books with STEM-characters in them period lol, but it’s definitely something I’m going to be paying attention to now.

    You should look into some of Seanan Mcguire/Mira Grant’s books (Mira Grant is her pen name). My personal fave, Into the Drowning Deep has multiple badass women in STEM positions. And her Newsflesh series as a number of a lady scientists as well!

    http://www.thebibliomancer.com

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