Study Finds Racial & Gender Gaps in STEM Reflected in TV Shows

There is a racial and gender gaps in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programming on television, according to a study in the Journal of Children and Media. Indeed, these results reflect existing disparities in the STEM industries.

Every sector of society is making an effort to attract new talent and broaden participation in STEM fields. Early childhood interests can be a predictor of later participation in STEM fields.

Preschoolers’ First Exposure to Fictional Figures

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Programs aimed towards preschoolers (ages 3-6) were the primary research emphasis.

According to psychologists, kids this age are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development, which means they are only starting to make the connection between words and symbols and are primarily learning about the world through labeling and organizing what they see.

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We need explicit and sensitive information about our kids’ chances. The representation’s implicit message should also be given some consideration.

The study’s authors chose 90 episodes at random from 30 different STEM-focused TV shows and online series. Characters in these episodes were coded based on their gender, age, species, race/ethnicity, and significance to the story to measure representation. In total, 1086 alphabetic characters were encoded.

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The investigation revealed that 77% of the adult male characters in the study were employed in a STEM field. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx characters were underrepresented overall when compared to demographic data.

But it’s worth noting that white characters weren’t disproportionately represented. Instead, a sizable proportion of characters were labeled “racially ambiguous/unsure” because of their tan skin tones or other non-human coloration, such as pink or purple.

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Not that this is generally bad, but young minds may have trouble connecting between good intentions on the part of creators and actual variety in the world.

Flaws in the System

Engaging kids at a young age is only one challenge in closing the diversity gap in STEM. Students and young professionals of color (including women, people of color, and Latino descent) are more likely to abandon STEM disciplines than their white male counterparts. It’s necessary to cure this tendency’s core causes.

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According to a 2019 study, black and Latinx students in STEM programs are more likely than white students to drop out or change majors. Some researchers have speculated that students’ feelings of exclusion in STEM programs stem from the normalization of harmful racial stereotypes about students’ IQs.

This is supported by research that contrasted the experiences of students of color in STEM programs at HBCUs with those at mainly white universities. The study found that while students at HBCUs viewed STEM fields as diverse and were encouraged by their programs, those at predominately white universities felt excluded and had difficulty fostering an inclusive campus environment.

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Plus, it’s not like things will magically improve once you graduate from college. Sixty-two percent of Black STEM workers claim they have faced prejudice because of their race or ethnicity at work, even after earning STEM degrees and joining the job. About 42% of Latinos in STEM fields feel this way.

This natural desire to be accepted is related to the importance of including a wide range of characters in children’s media. Even though kids of color need to see role models that look like them, it’s also critical for kids of both races to see heroes who show that STEM is open to everyone.

Exemplary Characters

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Women make up almost half of the workforce, but they are hardly ever in STEM jobs.

Some women have made progress in the STEM field, but this is not the case everywhere. Approximately 75% of the medical field is composed of women who work as practitioners and technicians. However, the number of women working in computer-related industries, despite being one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying STEM fields, has fallen since 1990.

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Fewer women working in STEM professions means fewer female role models for young women. It’s the same for young people of color, especially Black and Latinx kids. Here, television shows can have a disproportionately large impact.

A child who doesn’t have access to these real-world examples or role models may be greatly influenced by watching a show in which they build a deep affinity or bond with a beloved character who discusses many career alternatives and opportunities.

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Parents can use negative aspects of children’s STEM shows as teaching tools as creators attempt to make shows that more realistically reflect our society.

Discuss the issue of a lack of diverse characters with your child when you notice it. Ask what kind of characters they prefer or how they would describe being the lone girl in the lab. You’re giving them a hand by drawing attention to the problem for them.

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Little ones have an innate ability to read us like a book. Consistency between words and deeds is essential, as is the facilitation of honest dialogue.

Young people need to see a wide variety of role models in STEM to be inspired to pursue these careers and to understand that they are open to people from all walks of life. If you want to assist your child see bias in media, you can do so by asking them questions about the characters they see on TV.

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