STEM Career Portrayal in Children’s Media

by Kassandra Burd, M.Sc. Cognitive Neuropsychology, University of Kent

Kassandra Burd

Browsing through the aisles of my favourite bookstore, I come across a Sale stand for a plethora of children’s books. Immersing myself in the nostalgia of reading these books as a child, I can’t help but notice as I sift through them, the blatant gender stereotypes inherent in a good number of the stories and illustrations.

Several of these books depict girls and women as weak and fragile, while the depiction of boys and men are determined and strong. Many others that highlight career choice give prominence to the societal ideal that boys grow up to be scientists and engineers, while women stick to “helping” fields or become stay-at-home moms. Ultimately, this raises the question: What are these gender stereotypical portrayals teaching children? Do these portrayals have an effect on careers they choose as they get older?

It is not unreasonable to assume that these depictions would have a negative effect on girls’ perceived competence. Repeated stereotypical narratives and illustrations drill themselves into children’s’ minds and can shape their beliefs, and their well-being. What if, because of these gender stereotypes we see in books and movies, girls formulate the belief that they aren’t capable of overcoming obstacles and completing challenging tasks?

According to a study, researchers have discovered that male scientists were 3x more likely than female scientists to be found in children’s books (Wilbraham & Caldwell, 2018). The researchers of this study mention the importance of highlighting women in STEM careers, stating that “imagery communicates what it means for men and women to be associated with these occupations…” and that “women need to be present in children’s science books to demonstrate that all science subjects are fulfilling for girls.” This statement holds true for all STEM careers. Even non-human characters are commonly given male pronouns. According to a study, with 60% of non-human characters, the “he” pronoun was used 73% of the time (Ferguson, 2018).

Although the content of children’s books may seem like a trivial issue, it is crucial for the formation of children’s expectations and beliefs as they get older.

We do not want girls and women questioning their own inherent value and whether they perceive themselves as capable of contributing to fields they are passionate about. These ideals contribute to the lack of gender parity we see in society today, with a low number of women working in STEM fields.

The question we must ask ourselves is how could society combat these stereotypical ideals and break the status quo?

First, it is necessary to publish media representative of women in powerful positions and/or STEM-related fields (Study International, 2019). Seeing women in these positions will normalize women in typically male-dominated fields/positions, and might boost girls’ interest in occupying these roles themselves.

Second, we must teach girls that they can develop their intelligence with the accumulation of knowledge and extensive learning, as opposed to teaching them that their intelligence is predetermined at birth; this is otherwise known as the “growth mindset” (Study International, 2019). If girls believe that their intelligence is fixed, they might give up easier when it comes to challenging tasks. For instance, holding the belief that boys are inherently stronger at math will contribute to a defeatist mindset when it comes to math. Instead, encouraging girls that improvement can come with practice will support them, and may even cultivate an interest in the subject if they believe they can build their abilities and strength.

Lastly, guest speakers who are women would surely make a positive impact in the classroom (Study International, 2019). Knowing that girls have mentors they can look up to and aspire to be should have a positive effect on their own skills and aptitudes. One study has shown that when girls have role models in STEM, their interest in STEM-related fields increases [41% with role models, 30% without role models] (Microsoft UK, 2018).

Undoubtedly, there has been significant progress in the depiction of girls and the careers they end up choosing. For instance, the children’s book “Elena’s Serenade” by Campbell Geeslin tells the story of a girl who dreams of being a glass blower like her father, but is told by him that she is too small and that girls cannot become glassblowers. In the end, she proves everyone wrong by becoming very talented in this trade, and showing off her extra special talent of turning glassblowing into music. This is just one example of how a simple story can encourage girls to aspire to be whatever they wish to be, even when it’s a field we don’t typically see women pursuing.

Society must drive these ideals to the foreground and eliminate the gender stereotypes that hinder girls and women from pursuing their passions, thereby increasing self- confidence and eradicating any limits of what they can achieve.