If She Can See It, She Can Be It: Women of STEM on the Small Screen

She is science (Cosima/Maslany)

Hello, my name is Amy and I am a serial binge-watcher. I just can’t help it. I love my stories and I love to watch them one after another (in  quick succession until the TV checks that I am still there/alive). One of my most recent splurges was Orphan Black (2013- ) – I watched the first two series in anticipation of the third series (that has yet to receive a UK release date – argh, BBC3, seriously), and following the news that BBC America has recently commissioned a fourth season of this (currently) female-led science-based series. When I wrote my previous post on women on the cinema screen post-2000 lots of people tweeted at me about the mysterious Cosima Niehaus. I have now discovered that Cosima is an evolutionary biologist (the geek-monkey) who is one of Orphan Black‘s main characters; part of a cast of clones (#CloneClub) all played by the mesmerising Tatiana Maslany. Cosima is named after Orphan Black‘s own science consultant Cosima Herter who is a science writer, and a doctoral candidate in the history and philosophy of science at the University of Minnesota. In Orphan Black, Clone Cosima is both an active scientist who helps to drive the plot and explain much of the series’ scientific complexities, and is also a science experiment as part of a convoluted conspiracy plot surrounding the Dyad Institute, the Neolutionists, the Proletheans, and Topside amongst many others. It is a narratively dense series, but at its core it is fixated upon science and women. Something that I discovered was severely lacking in the mother/daughter/lover women found on the silver screen.

This post is a follow up to Rise of the Women?: Screening Female Scientists that discussed the image of women scientists on the big screen – this time I’m talking about their role and representation on the small screen. Once again, I am restricting my examples to programmes released after 2000. I chose to split discussions of film and television because there is a disparity between the number of women scientists in mainstream Hollywood movies, and the volume of women present in television shows. Some of this is due to the fact that there are far more TV programmes made than films, and that the production process is very different with the option for pilot-episodes, early cancellations (in the US context), and long-running shows such as FOX’s Bones (that has recently completed its tenth series) that provide the opportunity for exisitng female characters to be developed and for new ones to be introduced. Bones is led by Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan with a comparatively substantial list of female co-stars in scientific professions (in the main cast the gender split is 50:50). The women are not outnumbered, the women have conversations about things other than men, and they are not ‘damsels in distress’ – they fight their own battles and wield their own firearms. The series passes both the Smurfette test and the Bechdel test. However, Bones does not comment on the very real issue of sexism in the hard sciences but it, in part, helps to address the problem by making women, from a variety of different backgrounds, scientific role models for its viewers.

Coroner – Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor), Forensic Anthropologist – Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), Forensic Artist – Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin)

Women make up between 60-65% of the US TV viewership but, as noted in a 2013 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 38.9% of characters in prime-time programmes are women, and only 22% of prime-time programmes feature women in half of all speaking parts. Science-based television programmes seem to fair better with women taking some significant roles within their respective shows. There are some brilliant examples of women of STEM on the small screen for example: Astrid Farnsworth (Jasica Nicole) and Nina Sharp (Blair Brown) from Fringe; Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) from NCIS; Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) from Masters of Sex; Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox), Clarissa Mullery (Liz Carr), and Sam Ryan (Amanda Burton) from the UK’s Silent Witness; Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), and Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson (Chloe Bennet) from Agents of SHIELD; Alison Carter (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) from Eureka; Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping) – from Stargate: SG1, Stargate Universe, and Stargate: Atlantis. My list goes on (I have put it at the end of the post)– in a couple of hours I managed to amass a list of more than fifty women of STEM on mainstream shows with a mix of science fiction and science-based/medical dramas (I also included mechanical engineers Kaylee Frye [Jewel Staite] from Firefly, and Scorpion’s Happy Quinn [Jadyn Wong] – thanks to everyone that suggested them). But despite these good examples, women still pale in comparison to their male counterparts who are often the lead characters.

Happy Quinn

“Both young girls and boys should see female decision-makers, political leaders, managers, and scientists as the norm, not the exception. By increasing the number and diversity of female leaders and role models on screen, content creators may affect the ambitions and career aspirations of girls and young women domestically and internationally. As Geena Davis frequently states: If she can see it, she can be it.

Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television

It is important to have women represented in fictional media as scientists from across the spectrum of sciences, not just biological and medical sciences. Although I did not struggle to create a post-2000 TV list of women with science-based professions, I did find that a higher percent of the women I found were working in the biosciences including all the female medics on House, Body of Proof, CSI, Rizzoli & Isles, The Strain… Finding women represented in the hard science was more of a challenge – in The Big Bang Theory for example, of the female scientists that are series regulars Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) and Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (Melissa Rauch) one is a neurologist and other is microbiologist. They are repeatedly shown to be academically brilliant and their scientific prowess adds to their characterisation but they are both bioscientists – the hard physical sciences are almost entirely left to the men. Earlier in the series there was the wonderful Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert) who was a physicist who was able to hold her own and often exceed the achievements of the boys – but she was not retained as a series regular…

tumblr_mp0dnpNVty1r1n4hto1_250I had to search through several of the BBT seasons to find a second example of a woman outside of the biosciences and medicine: Elizabeth Plimpton (Judy Greer), cosmological physicist, appears in one episode – ‘The Plimpton Stimulation’ (ep.21/s.3) – but her academic prowess is soon undermined by the character’s voracious sexual appetite. Other women include Leonard’s (Johnny Galecki) mother – psychologist Beverly Hofstadter (Christine Baranski), Leonard’s ex – Stephanie Barnett, MD (Sara Rue), and Raj’s (Kunal Nayyar) girlfriend – dermatologist Emily Sweeney (Laura Spencer, who also plays intern Jessica Warren on Bones). In our recent symposium Stories about Science: Science Communication and Entertainment Media, Rashel Li (Australian National University) gave a paper on part of her doctoral research on The Big Bang Theory – ‘“I believe in a gender blind society like Star Trek”: The importance of portraying gender balance in science on The Big Bang Theory’. Her paper discussed the results of a study where she asked about viewer response to scientific ability and gender balance/imbalance in the show. Many participants were irritated by the ‘gender-based stereotypes of men in physics and women in biology’ but conceded that all scientist characters were shown to be equally scientifically capable despite their restriction to particular fields.

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 14.18.39
Penny – the seaon one Smurfette

Rashel’s paper made me think about how the female characters were incorporated into The Big Bang Theory – when the sitcom began in 2007 there was only Penny (she has no last name, don’t even get me started on that) a ditsy actress/waitress played by Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting to provide gender ‘balance’. But over its seven seasons the show has evolved from being a tired trope of “nerdy male scientists can’t get a dates” to a show with developed female characters who are more than romantic accessories or weak comedic stereotypes. The show has been praised for its realistic representation of bench science, but up until its fourth season it failed to show professional women in STEM settings unless they were administrators, assistants, or students. Amy and Bernadette start off as the oddball lady-Sheldon and the squeaky-voiced vertically-challenged blonde – but these initially problematic characters develop to show the real-world issues faced by professional women who struggle with not being taken seriously because they are women who don’t reject their feminity. They are not the stereotypical representations of STEM women as described by Jocelyn Steinke in her study of female scientist representation in movies 1991-2001 (see also Eva Flicker’s ‘Between Brains and Breasts’), and they are not simply sci-candy brought in to solve problems for the male leads (see brief discussion Arrow’s Felicity Smoak in ‘Rise of the Women’). The women of The Big Bang Theory are now given screen time without the male characters and Amy, Bernadette, and Penny (who has left waitressing to  forge a career in pharmaceutical sales) have their own lives to discuss beyond their romantic entanglements. The show still needs to work on its representation of gender (and race) in STEM but it remains one of the most realistic representations of real science on television, and may inspire some women to pursue a career in the sciences.


Screen Shot 2015-06-25 at 14.53.15“In recent years the so called ‘fourth wave’ activists and organisations have been making great strides in bringing feminism back up the social and political agenda. Groups like the Everyday Sexism Project, No More Page Three, the Women of the World festival (WOW) and the Women on Bank Notes campaign have all contributed to widening understanding of our social inequalities. This is the wider context within which we can begin to address the inequalities in STEM.

We call on TV and other media to use the gender lens when casting new characters in widely viewed programmes, commissioning new series that challenge gender stereotypes, and to both train and use female experts.”

THROUGH BOTH EYES: The case for a gender lens in STEM (Science Grrrl)

Media producers need to think more actively about incorporating female characters into their science-based programmes; they should, as recommended by a report produced by Science Grrl (quoted above), use a gender lens when commissioning new shows. They need to work towards producing shows that ‘challenge gender stereotypes’ – women should not be an afterthought or a late addition they should be part of the initial design of the programme. In our recently commissioned blog post for the British Science Association, ‘Stories about Science: Communicating Science Through Entertainment Media’, Ray and I discussed how science communication scholars and historians of science might be able to offer advise to practitioners/science consultants. We talked about the importance of having scientists involved in a production at an early stage as collaborators to allow for a more organic incorporation of scientific principles and more accurate representations of the systems of science (laboratories, experiments, results). This should also be applied to the incorporation of women of STEM – women should be involved throughout the process.

Meh ‘Doc’ Yewll (Trenna Keating) – Indogene doctor/research scientist in Syfy’s Defiance

The film and television industry is still an extremely male dominated field; ‘in 2013-14, women comprised 27% of all individuals working as creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography’ (‘Boxed In Report’, 2013/2014 – commissioned by Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). For me the most important media recommendation made by the ‘Science Grrl’ report is the idea that women need to be incorporated into the process early and that media producers should even be involved in training female scientists to be active contributors. Science consultants are an increasingly important part of producing exciting and entertaining science-based TV and film. At our ‘Stories About Science’ symposium, the science advisor for SyFy’s Defiance Dr. Kevin R. Grazier spoke to us about his involvement in the show from the beginning – science was a core element of the series and the creation of both the onscreen and virtual world that the story exists across. The narrative is informed by the science-based world that was created by both the creative team and their science advisors. The experience of female scientists is an important thing to be presenting on screen not only for young women but also for young men who can have the idea of seeing women of STEM on their screens normalised. By involving female scientists as advisors and collaborators the representation of women can move from being token figures and anomalies to being regular and entirely expected leading figures in science-based narratives on either the big or the small screen.

Several of our blog posts at the Science and Entertainment Lab make reference to the work of the Science and Entertainment Exchange (and our own work towards creating a British version), and the Berlin-based team Berlin’s MINTEEE (Mathematics, Information, Natural, and Technological Sciences Entertainment Education Excellence). But groups like the The Scirens who promote the need for increased science literacy in the general public and consider how women can be ambassadors for this cause, and WISE: A Campaign to Promote Women in Science, Technology, and Engineering who have funded research into building links between women of SET (Science, Engineering, Technology) and film and TV producers, encourage the incorporation of women into the actions of communicating science and actively engaging in the processes that result in their representation within the media. By making women more visible in science settings on television – in both fictional and factual programming – the inspiring images of science that can, and are being produced can be associated with women who are not only represented as smart individuals but as part of a network of diverse and complex professional women.

Women don’t need to be told that ‘it’s a girl thing’, and they don’t require ‘pretty role models’ to show them the way into science; but they do need to be shown that science is for everyone.


For further reading see:

Joan Haran, Mwenya Chimba, Grace Reid, and Jenny Kitzinger, ‘Screening Women in SET: How Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Are Represented in Films and on Television.’

Shankar Vedantam, ‘How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science‘ -NPR

Final Report Summary – EUROWISTDOM (European women in science TV Drama on Message)

Grace Bellow, ‘Why We Need More Geek Girls Like Willow‘, Bitch Media

princess_bubblegum___science_by_raveninthefog-d6avriqThis is my – by no means comprehensive – list of Women of STEM on the small screen (UK/US) since 2000. Please comment below if you have any more to add to the list:

  • Adventure Time: Princess Bubblegum (Hynden Walch) – science!
  • Agents of SHIELD: Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) – bio-chemistry/human & alien life sciences, Daisy ‘Skye’ Johnson (Chloe Bennet) – hacking/computer science
  • The Big Bang Theory: Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) – neuroscience, Leslie Winkle (Sara Gilbert) – physics, Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz (Melissa Rauch) – micro-biology, Beverly Hofstadter (Christine Baranski) – psychology, Emily Sweeney (Laura Spencer) – dermatology, Stephanie Barnett (Sara Rue) -medicine, Elizabeth Plimpton (Judy Greer) physical cosmology.
  • Body of Proof: Megan Hunt (Dana Delaney), Kate Murphy (Jeri Ryan) – medical examiners
  • Bones: Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel), Camille Saroyan (Tamara Taylor), Angela Montenegro (Michaela Conlin), Daisy Wick (Carla Gallo), Jessica Warren (Laura Spencer) – forensic anthropology
  • Criminal Minds: Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness) – technical analysis/hacking
  • CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Katherine Willow (Marg Helgenberger), Sara Sidle (Jorja Fox) – CSIs
  • CSI:Cyber: Avery Ryan (Patricia Arquette) – psychology
  • CSI: Miami: Calleigh Duquesne (Emily Proctor) – CSI with physics degree & a weapons specialism, Alexx Woods (Khandi Alexander) – medical examiner
  • CSI:NY: Stella Bonasera (Melina Kanakaredes), Jo Danville (Sela Ward) – CSIs
  • Defiance: Meh ‘Doc’ Yewll (Trenna Keating) – doctor/research scientist
  • Dollhouse: Bennett Halverson (Summer Glau) – programmer/computer science, Claire Saunders/Whiskey (Amy Acker) – medicine/science-tech experiment
  • Firefly: Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) – mechanical engineering
  • Fringe: Astrid Farnsworth (Jasica Nicole) – computer science, Nina Sharp (Blair Brown)
  • House: Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), Dr. Remy “Thirteen” Hadley (Olivia Wilde), Martha M. Masters (Amber Tamblyn), Jessica Adams (Odette Annable), Chi Park (Charlyne Yi) – medicine
  • Masters of Sex: Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) – gynecology/sexology
  • NCIS: Abby Sciuto (Pauley Perrette) – forensics
  • Numbers: Amita Ramanujan (Navi Rawat) – mathematics
  • Orphan Black: Cosima Niehaus (Tatiana Maslany), Delphine Cormier (Évelyne Brochu) – evolutionary biology (evo-devo)
  • Rizzoli & Isles: Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander) – medical examiner
  • Sanctuary: Helen Magnus (Amanda Tapping) teratology/medicine
  • Scorpion: Happy Quinn (Jadyn Wong) – mechanical engineering
  • Silent Witness: Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox), Clarissa Mullery (Liz Carr), and previously Sam Ryan (Amanda Burton) – forensics
  • Stargate: SG1, Stargate Universe, Stargate: Atlantis: Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping)– astrophysics/engineering
  • The Strain: Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro) – epidemiology
  • X-Files: Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) – medicine

  2 comments for “If She Can See It, She Can Be It: Women of STEM on the Small Screen

  1. Susan James
    July 15, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    I would add Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones) in Castle.

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