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Seeing Vs. Being: Film Representations of Women in Engineering

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

LEES 1: Critical Humanities and Serious Play

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Paper Authors

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Jessica Livingston Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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Richard House Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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In media representations of engineers and engineering, concerns of diversity and inclusion ordinarily start with a simple yes or no question: Among our onscreen engineers, are women and people of color represented alongside white men? [1] Implicit in this question is the central logic adopted as a slogan by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: “If She Can See It, She Can Be It” [2]. Indeed, this is often the first conclusion of studies on STEM’s continued gender gap: we need “more female role models” [3].

From this point of view of diversity and inclusion, the evolution of onscreen engineering representations in the 2010s is worth celebrating. In 2009, the aspirational engineer of Hollywood blockbusters was alpha male Tony Stark in Iron Man; by the end of the decade, female engineers and computer programmers featured in leading roles in such Hollywood blockbusters as Hidden Figures (2016), Ghostbusters (2016), Black Panther (2018), and Ocean’s 8 (2018). Our paper uses film analysis to examine female characters from Hidden Figures and Black Panther. In addition, it addresses their potential use for recruiting young women into STEM, cautioning against a simplistic, celebratory approach for recruiting women into engineering.

Some studies have attempted to measure the power of such portrayals for young women’s career decisions. In 2018, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released the report “The ‘Scully Effect’: I Want to Believe…in STEM,” arguing that the character of Dr. Dana Scully in the science fiction drama The X-Files (1993-2002) was a role model for young women and led many female fans to pursue careers in STEM fields. The study thus creates a strong presumption that today’s more frequent female role models deserve substantial credit for enrollment and career booms that should reasonably follow.

We argue instead that these expectations should be tempered, and that such perhaps unwarranted optimism points to major methodological questions. The Davis Institute’s study proceeds from a survey-driven data analytics stance, and neglects any visual or narrative analysis. Scholars in film and television studies and other, textual-interpretive disciplines tend to find much more qualified support for “if she can see it, she can be it” reasoning about onscreen avatars for STEM professions. Texts like these, they say, almost always offer “mixed messages” [4] and may even reinforce the status quo [5]. (On The X-Files itself, for instance, one analyst ultimately finds that its purportedly “subversive elements of science fiction [SF] and horror narratives … reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative ideologies” [6].) Our analysis credits the aspirational traits presented by onscreen female engineers, but also the ideological horizons that limit the films in which they appear.

Livingston, J., & House, R. (2022, August), Seeing Vs. Being: Film Representations of Women in Engineering Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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