When Emily Graslie started her YouTube program, "The Brain Scoop," out of a lab at the University of Montana, she couldn't find many role models that looked like her. Today, she's a popular Internet science educator—Chicago's Field Museum's first-ever "Chief Curiosity Correspondent"—whose viral YouTube shows often get hundreds of thousands of views. And she's still looking for that role model.
“There should be some woman on some show on some channel," she told me. "I keep searching for her, and I don’t think she exists. There is no female equivalent of Brian Cox, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.”
Graslie is wondering what many women in science have been wondering for a long time: Why we don't see more women depicted as scientists in popular culture. Are we as a culture failing to perceive women as legitimate scientific figures? Are there too few female scientists because female role models are rare? Or are the depictions that do exist so skewed that a life in science appears undesirable?
Such questions come to a head in "The Big Bang Theory."
It's the second-most popular scripted show on television. But if you’re not familiar, the half-hour CBS sitcom tells the story of four young (male) scientist friends who work in Caltech’s research laboratories. Two of these men are in relationships with female scientists. Given the rarity of female scientists in pop culture, you’d think that finding two in one show would be considered a move in the right direction.
Yet, "The Big Bang Theory" raises the ire of many proponents of boosting women's participation in the sciences (Graslie: “I could go on all day about 'The Big Bang Theory.' Really, who are these women in media making these shows?”).
The show’s satirical take on geek culture relies on caricatures and tired conventions, and the options provided for women in science fit snugly into limiting stereotypes of women whose primary function is the pursuit of men. Graslie sums two characters up this way: “You can be either one of two dorky women: You can be a super-ditzy blonde or you can be the straight-haired woman with the dorky glasses who is socially awkward. Why are we giving women those two role models to look up to?”
Even more troubling, the intelligence of both of these scientists is played for laughs against the show’s central object of desire and chief stereotype: the beautiful, blonde Penny, who is street-smart but academically challenged.
"The Big Bang Theory" seems unavoidable in discussions of pop culture and science because of its immense popularity and its role as one of the few shows to prominently feature women working in STEM fields. Programs like this create culture beyond the confines of the show, and with the many challenges facing women working in science today, problematic representations—when representations are found at all—are ripe for a critical eye.
The landscape of women in science
There are fewer women working in science than men. Currently, 25 percent of STEM jobs are held by women—and those women generally make less money and receive less funding for their research. They also hold fewer positions capable of directing those dollars. The percentage of women on scientific advisory boards in the United States between 1970 and today has never risen above 10.2 percent.
One high school teacher graded his students on a “boy curve” and a “girl curve” because “he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Eileen Pollack recently explored why there are so few female scientists, and among the causes she identified is the fact that girls and young women are simply not perceived as scientists.
If girls do not see women portrayed as competent, capable scientists—real or fictional—they are less likely to consider science as a pursuit that is available to them. And if the role of scientist is portrayed as undesirable—associated with social outcasts or the romantically unwanted—or unattainable—requiring not only scientific proficiency but also the beauty and body of a model (see Denise Richards as nuclear physicist Christmas Jones in The World Is Not Enough)—why would girls aspire to it?
Where my ladies at?
In her New York Times Magazine piece, Pollack finds "The Big Bang Theory" symptomatic of this greater perception problem. Given the options provided by the women in the show, Pollack asks, “What remotely normal young woman would want to imagine herself as dowdy, socially clueless Amy rather than as stylish, bouncy, math-and-science-illiterate Penny?”
So she spoke with women studying at Yale to find out.
Many of the woman she talked to said they lacked encouragement in their fields simply because of their sex. One woman relayed the story of a high school teacher who graded his students on a “boy curve” and a “girl curve” because “he couldn’t reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys.” Another said she hates to be identified in public as a physics major. “The minute they find out, I can see the guys turn away.”
It's not difficult to see why when you dig into the perception problem. The most well-known figures in popular science are men. When we see Brian Cox, Bill Nye, or any of the scientists who have successfully crossed over to pop-culture stardom, no one struggles to see them as scientists.
But what is it we see when a woman holds a role like that? More importantly, are there any females in science who have attained that level of cultural penetration?
In a recent episode of "The Brain Scoop," “Where My Ladies At?” Graslie explores what audiences see when they see a women talking about science.
Unfortunately, it’s not science.
Physical attractiveness and gendered expectations still trump scientific inquiry when it comes to large segments of audiences, and Graslie's heard many sexist comments from her viewers (“I’d totally do her,” “She looks like a nerdy pig”). For many viewers, appearance is the sole subject of judgment and praise or aspersions are based on that alone.
“The first thing many see when a woman is on a screen—presenting anything, not just science—is a woman,” she said. “Her clothes, body, appearance. Only afterwards—if ever—does the content start to come into the picture.”
Have we, I asked her, created a world where there are scientists and, separately, women in science?
According to Graslie, yes—and she's looking toward to the day the term "scientist" can cover everyone.
So how do we clear the cultural space necessary to allow women to engage freely and equally?
“I grew up watching Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steve Irwin, and David Attenborough," Graslie said. "Seventy-five percent of them are old white guys. I didn’t identify with any of them ...
"Then I started learning about Jane Goodall, and I really hung onto her. Here’s a woman doing independent research, living in Africa, doing remarkable things. I’ve always ... wanted to fulfill a role like that in some capacity, where I can publicize what women are doing in science, or be a role model myself.”
I’d say Graslie has already begun filling that role. At 24, her reach is already quite impressive. She tells me about all the girls who reach out to her, and the families who’ve been moved by what she’s making. It’s clear that Graslie’s work on YouTube is is satisfying a need.
Which has made her take her job a lot more seriously. “I was surprised my video [on sexism] was as popular as it was, not because it didn’t deserve it, but because people thought it was news. That people thought I was saying something nobody knew about before. It’s not news. Look around. There are no women filling these roles."
The Scully Effect
One of the most frustrating aspects of this scarcity is that we know just how significant an influence powerful female, scientist role models can have on young women.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this power has come to be known as the "Scully Effect." Named for Special Agent Dana Scully, the medical doctor and FBI agent who was one half of the investigative team on "The X-Files", the Scully Effect accounts for the notable increase in women who pursued careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement as a result of living with Dana Scully over the nine years "The X-Files" ran on Fox.
The show has been off the air for more than a decade. Yet the character of Dana Scully remains a powerful example of how a dynamic female character whose primary pursuit is science—not romantic relationships—can have a lasting impact on our culture.
During an "X-Files" reunion panel at San Diego Comicon this summer, a woman who recently received a PhD in physics rose to thank Gillian Anderson (who portrayed Agent Scully) for the influence she had on her life. Anderson responded that she’s long been aware of the Scully Effect, and has frequently heard from girls “who were going into the medical world or the science world or the FBI world or other worlds that I reigned, that they were pursuing those pursuits because of the character of Scully.”
While Emily Graslie, Vi Hart, and other women on YouTube look to fill the shortage of popular science educators, mainstream characters like Temperance Brennan on "Bones" and Abby Sciuto on "NCIS" have the promise to do for girls today what Dana Scully did a decade ago.
I’ve even heard talk of an Abby Effect.