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Cultural Representations of Gender and STEM: Portrayals of Female STEM Characters in Popular Films 2002-2014

Jocelyn Steinke, Paola Maria Paniagua Tavarez


Images of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals in popular films influence public perceptions of the participation, status, role, and contributions of women in STEM. This study used content analysis and textual analysis to examine the prevalence and portrayals of female STEM characters in 42 popular films in the United States from 2002 to 2014. Findings revealed that female STEM characters were outnumbered by male STEM characters in speaking roles by 2 to 1. Female STEM characters appearing in lead, co-lead, and secondary roles (N=62) typically were cast in co-lead or secondary roles in the films, and the typical female STEM character was a Caucasian scientist employed as a biologist or astronaut who worked as a member of a research team, was attractive, was equally as likely to be in either a romantic relationship or single, and was not a mother. Social learning theory and possible selves theory suggest that presenting a greater number and more diverse portrayals of female STEM characters may be important for girls’ and young women’s identification with STEM characters and future interest in STEM careers. These findings call for an increase in the overall presence of female STEM characters in popular films, including women from traditionally underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and a greater focus on more diverse portrayals of female STEM characters to replace overt and subtle gender stereotypes of STEM professionals.


gender and STEM; cultural representations of gender; gender stereotypes; popular films; possible selves; media images

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