The Scully Effect: Did Aliens on TV Drive Women into STEM?

The Scully Effect: Is it Real?

If you were around in the 1990s, you may have watched Gillian Anderson in The X-Files. Anderson played FBI Agent and medical doctor Dana Scully, the skeptical foil to Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). While Mulder was a believer in all things occult and extra-terrestrial, Scully was analytical; she demanded scientific proof before she would buy into Mulder’s theories.

What the original audiences of The X-Files didn’t anticipate was the show’s impact on some of the young women who watched it, particularly their perceptions of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). A recent study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media confirmed what many fans and academics have long suspected: women who see female scientists in the media are more likely to go into STEM fields—what has been termed “the Scully Effect.”

Researchers found that nearly two-thirds of women who are familiar with Dana Scully say she increased their belief in the importance of STEM.

According to the Institute, Scully was influential because she countered the stereotype of scientists as lone, white, socially awkward males (think about Doc Brown in Back to the Future, Ross Geller on Friends, or the male leads on The Big Bang Theory).

While Scully was not physically intimidating (a foot shorter than her co-star, Anderson often had to be filmed standing on a platform called “the Scully box”), she was a force to be reckoned with: intelligent, determined, articulate, and strategic.

To paraphrase a quote about Ginger Rogers, Scully did everything Mulder did, but she did it in heels.

Googlers, Doctors, and Female Role Models in STEM

Since Scully, there have been many other media representations of female leaders in STEM. At a recent event in Kitchener, Ontario, Margaret Atwood and other authors discussed the relationship between technology, media, and gender. One of the presenters was Kamal Singh, whose children’s book, Ara the Star Engineer, portrays female role models in STEM, based on real-life employees at Google.

Another shift in portrayals of STEM in the media is the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the central time traveler in Doctor Who, a long-running BBC series (co-created by a Canadian). Across the first 36 seasons of the drama, the brilliant, time-travelling Doctor was only ever cast as male. Whittaker’s Doctor places a woman in the role of the show’s expert on science, technology, and pretty much everything else. The first episode of her season drew 11 million viewers.

The World Needs More Canada – & Canada Needs More Women in STEM

Despite Scully’s impact, the development of more female leaders in STEM is still a work in progress. The Canadian federal government is aware that women are under-represented in STEM. According to Statistics Canada, in 2016, women represented only 22-37% of Canadian-educated bachelor’s degree holders in STEM; and among workers aged 25 to 34, only 54% of women with a bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences worked in science and technology roles, compared with 74% of men.

Addressing this gender gap in STEM is essential, not only to support women’s access to challenging, well-paying jobs, but for Canada’s economic future.

To build the country’s capabilities and reputation for innovation, Canada’s labour force needs people with a scientific background. Science and technology occupations are among the highest-paying and fastest-growing jobs. The under-representation of women in these jobs is troubling.

Natalie Dolan is a Toronto-based photographer whose recent project highlights women in STEM. She explains, “I’m passionate about the environment and about disease prevention. It’s STEM jobs that are going to work on these areas. And when we have these conversations, we cannot possibly solve these issues without 51% of the population at the table” (The Globe & Mail).

However, recent media portrayals and female role models may be slowly having a positive effect. In Canada, more younger women than before are graduating with STEM degrees, and women are more likely than men to persist in their STEM education once begun; they also graduate more quickly (Statistics Canada).

Hiring Grants: Women in STEM Can Give Businesses an Edge

The Canadian federal government offers several wage-subsidy programs for employers who hire women in STEM. The salary of a recent STEM graduate can amount to $50-65K, and government hiring grants can help offset this cost for part or all of the first year after hiring. For some programs, businesses that hire female STEM candidates can be awarded up to 70% of these first-year salary costs.

The long-term benefits for businesses who hire female STEM employees are clear. Women in STEM organizations boost diversity, which creates several advantages. According to Katherine Phillips, professor of Leadership & Ethics at Columbia Business School:

“Diversity […] encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations.” (Scientific American)

With the increasing impact of the Scully Effect, employers may have an ever-growing body of STEM candidates to choose from; those who select teams that include women will leverage creativity and diversity to gain an edge in innovation.

Businesses that are interested in taking advantage of hiring funding opportunities can use Mentor Works’ Wage Subsidy Identifier to be matched to the most appropriate programs.

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