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?

Top Ten Female Book Characters in STEM

Hello hello! Sorry I haven’t posted much this week- it’s been rather hectic! Since getting my new house (I now have a move in date!!) I’ve been packing, picking out furniture, meeting landlords and all sorts of other fun things 😀

Anyway, today’s Top Ten Tuesday was a freebie to do with school or learning so I decided to do a topic on inspiring female characters in YA fiction who are engineers! This is a topic very close to my heart as I’m a female computer scientist and appear to be a bit of a minority in my field. I always get a little over-excited when I read a book and there’s a girl interested in machines, or computers or maths or anything because yay for girls in STEM!

1. Violet Baudelaire from A Series of Unfortunate Events

Violet had to be top of the list because she was one of my favourite characters growing up. I remember trying to tie my bob-shaped hair up with a piece of ribbon once (to no avail- it didn’t help I couldn’t even tie shoelaces at the time) like she does every time she’s required to invent or fix something for her constantly in peril brothers. I didn’t even realise being a girl interested in computers was unique when I was a kid thanks to characters like Violet!

2. Leyla from Traitor to the Throne

I don’t want to write any massive spoilers in this post but lets just say Leyla doesn’t exactly use her machines to help Amani’s rebellion. Which is a shame because when we first met this character- a girl in the Harem who liked to fix mechanic toys for the littler kids– I was super excited, even if she was perceived as weird.

3. Hermione from Harry Potter

Hermione isn’t a female engineer, and I’m not sure whether charms or potion making count as STEM subjects or not, but one of the reasons she really inspired me as a kid was because she was hard working. Whereas Harry was clearly a natural Hermione puts the effort in, reading the text books before the term starts and studying really hard, even when fighting Voldemort she’s done her research! As a kid who wasn’t a natural in class, I have been known to bring text books on holiday many times, it was really inspiring to read about Hermione putting the effort in.

4. Maddy from Code Named Verity

I read this novel last year and absolutely treasured Maddy. A girl who loves engines and machines, who learns to fly planes and won’t take any stick from anyone for being a female in a man’s world. Yes. Totally perfect. This also led me to research the ATA and I read a few of their stories and the genuine Maddy’s out there were very cool.

5. Liz from Ghallagher Girls

Liz, in Cammie’s little group of three at school, is the computer genius. She can hack into anything, loves prime numbers and is constantly discussing technology. She a little shoved behind a screen while Cammie and Becks do the spying but at least she’s in the novels!

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6. Nyssa from Heroes of Olympus

What are the odds you recognise this daughter of Hephaestus? She shows Leo around camp when he first arrives and works at the forge as an Engineer. I vaguely remember her being somewhat responsible for the three-legged race that is a little deadly as it’s through the Labyrinth, but we’ll gloss over that.

7. Liesel from The Book Thief

Like Hermione, Liesel isn’t an engineer but for want of tenth addition to my list I thought I’d include her. She might not have been interested in machines but she has a healthy appreciation of words and learning so is still pretty inspiring.

8. Laura from HIVE

Laura is a computer genius from Scotland, admitted to HIVE for using her hacking talents to way-lay FBI satellites and spy on some girls gossiping about her at school. She’s my favourite character from these novels, and one of the few female engineer protagonists on this list that doesn’t just sit behind a computer screen and miss out on all the action!

9. Dimple from When Dimple Met Rishi

Ok slight confession, I’ve never read the book and have no idea if Dimple actually can code. But I’ve read the Goodreads synopsis and had heard this novel was about a computer scientist? I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel here (come on authors, write more female engineers!) so correct me if I’m wrong.

10. Opal Kaboi from Artemis Fowl

Opal is sadly the bad guy (or I should say girl) in these novels, having some strange vengeance against Artemis’s engineering centaur friend who beat her in a science contest at school, but she is crucially still an engineer owning her own tech company. It’s just a shame she comes across so bitter on the page while the boys in the novel interested in tech (crucially Artemis) are the heroes.

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So there you have it! Ten fictional girls in STEM! Admittedly that list was quite hard to make but one of my favourite Top Ten Tuesdays to write yet. If you know of any characters I’ve missed or haven’t read then please comment! I will almost definitely enjoy a book with a female engineer in 😛 And if you did this topic I’d love to hear your take on the topic or read your post if you link it 😀