5 mins read 07 Aug 2020

Looking up to Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Star Trek Voyager.

Science fiction has plenty of role models for women and minorities - but the real world doesn’t have enough. Ph.D. student Kathryn Ross pens her thoughts on how we can learn from highlighting women and minorities as influential and achieved figures, changing the stereotypical male scientist image from the minds of the masses.

The character Kathryn Janeway - a starship captain in the science fiction series, Star Trek. Credit: Star Trek/Paramount Network Television/CBS Television Distribution.

“Captain Kathryn Janeaway of the Star Trek Voyager”.

That is one of my absolute favourite lines from any movie or tv show ever. As a kid, I always looked forward to watching Star Trek Voyager with my family. I grew up watching Captain Janeway navigate difficult political situations, dangerous sub-space anomalies and lead her entire crew while being completely unapologetic and with perfectly coiffed hair. 

While I love Captain Janeway, having a fictional role model is far too common a story for so many minorities and women. We live in a society which only highlights a single brand of scientist, usually one with crazy Einstein-esque hair, a lab coat and most importantly, always a white man. In such an environment, it is almost impossible to find role models in science outside of this specific mold. 

Dr. Karen Lee-Waddell, whilst doing outreach when she worked at the CSIRO ran an informal experiment with young children in the schools she was visiting to talk about science. Prior to her arrival, she asked teachers to request that students draw the scientists they believed were coming to visit their school. The results, whilst from a very small sample, showcased that the influence of pop culture, combined with stereotypical male science figures in learning pathways has an impact on what students perceive scientists to be and look like. 

Fortunately, we can see the positive effect of highlighting more women and changing perceptions of scientists as only male. Over several decades, students are drawing more female scientists as we showcase more women in STEM in general media, but the numbers still dwindle as students grow older and are exposed to more gendered stereotypes. That is far too slow a pace.

The fictional character Dr. Dana Scully from the X-Files. Credit: X-Files/10 Thirteen Productions/20th Television.

Women for far too long have had to turn to science fiction in order to find the few women in STEM they can relate to. What amazes me, is how this still manages to have a positive effect. The Geena Davis Institute found that women who watched the X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to have worked, or be working, in a STEM field. This is due to the female character Dana Scully, a medical doctor in the classic paranormal t.v. series, the X-Files. This is (creatively) called the “Scully Effect”. Not to mention, since 1986, scientists have known that having visible women in STEM as role models improves not just the attitudes of aspiring women, but also their fellow male students.

If a single fictional character from a paranormal t.v. series can have such a profound effect on inspiring future women in STEM, why would we not showcase the multitude of women in STEM in every possible way? Furthermore, we know having a lack of role models can contribute to things like poor self-esteem and Imposter Syndrome

Put simply, because we continue to prioritise male comfort and the status quo over proven research which can benefit some many more people. 

Too often the rooms of people who are in charge of scripts for sci-fi shows and movies, who write the syllabuses that dictate what we learn in classrooms or who seek out experts for media interviews are dominated by men. Too often women are required to be superior just to be considered on par to their male counterparts. Too often, unconscious biases continue to result in minorities being overlooked while white men continue to be celebrated.

It becomes far easier to recycle the male role models we have used for decades than to question whether we can and should do better. 

But our next generation deserves more than that. As much as I love Captain Janeway, I hate that I had to turn to a fictional character just to see someone who I could aspire to be. Research has shown time and time again that diverse role models help everyone, in particular people within minorities. To continue to recycle the same, 1-dimensional representation of scientists is not just lazy, it’s bad science. 

I for one, will continue to fight to showcase and celebrate as many scientists outside of such a rigid and damaging mold. We can and should do better.

Kathryn Ross

Growing up, Kat used to watch the International Space Station going overhead with her family. Until she learned people live inside it and she became forever terrified of poop falling on her head from space. Thankfully, today Kat’s skills at staring up into the Universe have improved significantly.

She is now a Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University studying the baby black holes in the centres of distant galaxies trying to understand galaxy evolution and the history of our Universe. Kat has a background in optical interferometry of red giant stars, dark matter content of galaxies and physics education research. She is an activist for Women In STEM and works as a science communicator when not staring at distant baby black holes or fleeing from space poop.

Twitter: @astro_katross