Panel 3C | STEM Gender Stereotypes in Pop Culture

I’m Not a “Woman Engineer,” I’m an Engineer: Representations of Women Coders in the Golden Age of Television
Hannah Little and Ariana Olsen (University of the West of England)

Historically, there has been a stigma around the presence and capabilities of women in computer science, as well as a lack of women coders as role models both in fiction and in the real world. With the growing information age and the “golden age of television” triggered by the success of online provision, several recent TV shows have been produced with coders at the centre. These shows have ranged from series about startups and Silicon Valley (e.g. Silicon Valley, Startup, Betas, Leap Year, DEVS), hackers and informational security (e.g. Mr Robot, Intelligence), game development (e.g. Mythic Quest), and the personal computer revolution (e.g. Halt, Catch Fire). Research has argued that a key factor in combating negative social attitudes towards women in certain contexts is representations of women in the media; normalising their role in male-dominated arenas. Knowing this, television producers face the dilemma of whether they should use their shows about coders to represent the male-dominated reality, or represent women in ways that help rectify persisting stigma, and therefore potentially the gender gap. In this contribution, we analyse the presence of women coders in recent TV shows and the tropes associated with these women, and how women are presented in comparison to their male counterparts. We will argue that while there has been notable recent efforts to represent women as coders and sometimes even executives, there are issues with representations being limited in both their number and diversity. Broader representations of both men and women in tech, with diverse physical attributes, personalities, and abilities to empathise and interact, may stop the othering of women in tech spaces, and reinforcement of problematic masculine traits that may be threatened by the presence of women programmers.

Girly and Geeky: Female Nerds and Negotiations of Femininity in Contemporary Television
Irena Jurković (University of Zadar)

In recent decades, images of geeks and nerds have become increasingly visible in U.S. popular culture and media. Though traditionally portrayed as exceptionally intelligent and socially awkward men, it can be noted that recent depictions of geeks in popular culture have undergone significant changes in an attempt to challenge preexisting stereotypes and attract a specific type of audience. In this presentation, I will examine the rise of the female geek, who has become particularly present figure in U.S. television in the past decade. Given that being a woman and a geek is at odds with traditional discourses on femininity and depictions of geeks, it seems particularly interesting to investigate whether and how do characters of female geeks challenge or reaffirm gender stereotypes. In what ways do female geeks differ from their male counterparts? Drawing on popular television series as Big Bang Theory (Bernadette Rostenkowski), Lucifer (Ella Lopez), and Criminal Minds (Penelope Garcia), I will argue that the female geek in popular culture is the embodiment of neoliberal and postfeminist ideologies. Unlike her male counterparts, the female geek is usually portrayed as girly, cool, and/or sexually empowered woman. The focus is primarily on her physical appearance and fashion expression while her intellectual brilliance tends to fall into the background. In other words, a female geek character, in order to exist and be recognized, had to combine her overtly feminine traits with her professional skills and intelligence. Conclusively, such representations make characters safe for wider consumption while promoting the idea of neoliberal, postfeminist woman who can seemingly have it all.

Comic Book Superheroes vs. STEM Gender Stereotypes: Closing Gaps in the New Millennium
Igor Juricevic (Indiana University South Bend)

Stereotypes of STEM scientists (i.e., technology-oriented, loners, computer mind, lacking interpersonal skills, and intelligent) decrease women’s interest in STEM (Cheryan et al., 2013). The portrayal of the skills that STEM scientists possess can reinforce these stereotypes. How are STEM skills portrayed in comic books? And has that changed over the last 30 years? We analyzed the superpowers (i.e., skills) of over 1000 Marvel Comics characters that debuted before 1990 (783 characters) or after 2000 (235 characters). A statistical analysis using a t-test followed by a Benjamini-Hochberg post-hoc test was performed for each superpower during each time-period to detect any gender biases. Results indicated that some powers were never gender biased while others were. Specifically, no gender biases existed in either time period for electricity control, electronic disruption, electronic interaction, or (cybernetic) implants (all superpowers related to “hard“ STEM skills). Similarly, no gender biases in either time period existed for emotion control, being insanely rich (an advantage in STEM, Bell et al., 2017), and telepathy (all superpowers related to “soft“ STEM skills). There were, however, gender biases for other superpowers in characters debuting before 1990. Specifically, there was a male bias for the hard STEM skill superpowers of gadgets, power item, power suit, and technopathy, as well as the soft STEM skill superpowers of adaptive and omni-lingual. Surprisingly, there was also a female bias for some STEM skill superpowers. Female biases were detected in the hard STEM skill superpowers of animation and intellect, as well as the soft STEM skill superpowers of empathy and leadership. Finally, there were no gender biases detected for any STEM skill superpowers in characters debuting after 2000. These findings suggest that exposure to characters debuting before 1990 could perpetuate certain STEM stereotypes, while exposure to more recent characters could diminish those stereotypes.

MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.T.E.M. Representations of scientists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Lucy Perrott (University of the West of England)

Between 2008 and 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced 23 blockbuster films in their Infinity Saga. These films spanned themes of superheroes, magic and science and many major characters in the franchise are scientists. With collective box office takings of nearly $23 billion, these representations will have undoubtedly affected public perceptions of scientists in relation to their demographic features, expertise, appearance, and personality traits. Previous work has shown that perceptions of what scientists can look like are influenced heavily by the media (Boston et al., 2018). Further, representations of scientists who share demographic features with an audience can empower that audience to feel like science is for them (Archer et al., 2014). For example, representations of women in science have been shown to improve girls’ STEM career aspiration (Pietri et al., 2020). In the current study, over twenty characters were identified with an expertise in science. We found that representations of scientists have changed from the beginnings of the saga: from Tony Stark’s straight, white, playboy genius to Dr Jane Foster and Shuri bringing more representation of women and people of colour. On-screen representations of scientists are departing from traditional stereotypes as greater exposure leads to embracing scientists as people with human concerns (Haynes, 2014). Marvel executives have indicated that they aspire to a more inclusive, diverse MCU in the future (Yamato, 2019). However, in relation to representation of scientists in the Infinity Saga, this study found over 80% of the scientist characters are white and 65% are male. By comparing on-screen representations of scientists with common stereotypes and tropes of scientists prevalent in western fictional media, we will identify how these films reinforce or challenge stereotypes, and how representations of scientists are changing in mainstream cinema in subtle and explicit ways.