By Misty Antonacci
This month we will commemorate the first time an American woman walked in space. On Oct. 11, 1984, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan became the first to do this, nearly two decades after a man did the same. Of the 536 people who have gone to space, only about 11 percent have been female.
This gender gap is evident across all areas of science, technology, engineering and math. While women make up about half of the workforce in this country, they hold only 24 percent of jobs in STEM fields. As a woman earning a degree in math, I notice this disparity every day in my classmates and professors.
We should foster interest in STEM starting from a young age and encourage girls to get involved. Role models – both in real life and in movies and television – have been shown to inspire more women to enter STEM fields.
Here’s the five women in STEM represented in pop culture who inspired me:
Uhura on “Star Trek”
While women may not have made great strides in space exploration until the 1980s, Lieutenant Uhura was serving as the chief communication officer on USS Enterprise beginning in 1966. Not only was she a great representation of a woman in a STEM field, but she was also one of the first major depictions of a black woman on television in a non-service role. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a big fan, having stated that “Star Trek” was the only show he allowed his children to watch because of her inspiring role. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, later went on to work on a campaign with NASA, helping to recruit the astronaut class that included, among others, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space and Kathryn Sullivan, who became the first woman to perform a spacewalk 34 years ago this month.
Dana Scully on “The X-Files”
In the first “X-Files” episode, we learn that special agent Dana Scully earned a bachelor’s degree in physics (where her undergraduate thesis was reinterpreting Einstein!) and went to medical school before joining the FBI, showing the diversity of fields that cross over into STEM. Her intelligence and scientific knowledge made for a great partnership between her and Fox Mulder as they investigate the FBI’s unexplained X-Files. If that wasn’t enough, her portrayal on the show encouraged a generation of young women to pursue science, a noticeable phenomenon known as “The Scully Effect.”
The Women of “Grey’s Anatomy”
There have been so many awesome women throughout the 14 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” that it’s hard to pick just one. Shonda Rhimes (the creator, head writer and executive producer of the show) has created a diverse cast of women working in a STEM field and made it a cultural sensation. Even when their storylines are a bit over-the-top, there is no doubt that these characters have served as role models and fostered an interest in STEM for countless people.
Sandy Cheeks on “SpongeBob SquarePants”
Despite being a cartoon character, Sandy Cheeks is still a great depiction of a woman in STEM. A scientist and inventor, Sandy is one of the most intelligent characters on the show. Additionally, she has a variety of other interests and skills outside of science, such as karate and playing guitar, showing that women can be successful in many different male-dominated fields. She may be from a children’s show, but Sandy is probably one of the first examples of a female scientist a young girl could see in media.
Felicity Smoak on “Arrow”
Felicity Smoak, a computer scientist with a degree from MIT, is introduced on the show as an IT worker who helps Team Arrow with their vigilante justice. She serves a major role on the team, often using her hacking skills to provide technical support. As the series goes on, she works her way up to become the CEO of her own tech company. Felicity often proves herself to be highly intelligent and capable, as well as incredibly brave in the face of danger. Her confidence in her skills and abilities make her a great role model for women in STEM.
When women and girls to see other women succeeding in STEM fields, even in movies and on television, they have more opportunity to believe in their own abilities. If we’re able to increase STEM representation in the media, then perhaps one day women will have a more equal footing in the field.
Misty Antonacci is a senior at the College of Charleston studying math with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. She is the founder and president of the Women in STEM club on her campus, which works to support women in STEM majors and increase recruitment and retention. Misty is the recipient of the 2018-2019 Skirt magazine scholarship.