STEMming the Tide of Social Media for Girls
1 May 2022
A 2018 survey conducted by global software company LivePerson revealed that 91.7% of a sample of 1,000 American consumers said that they could not name a famous female leader in technology (Zara). Of the 8.3% that responded they could, only 4% were actually able to, with a quarter of those listing Alexa and Siri, both virtual assistants. These results are not surprising, as only approximately one-third of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce is female, with women accounting for 26% of computer and mathematical scientists and just 16% of engineers in the U.S., as reported by the National Science Board, a governmental U.S. science policy body (Burke et al.).
Increasing female representation in STEM fields is important since women can offer vastly different perspectives from men, as demonstrated by the 1959 work The Holdout, where a woman maintains a different opinion from the men in the jury room and thus helps the case be more thoroughly investigated (Rockwell). This lends well to the STEM fields, as women’s new ideas can bring a more comprehensive and diverse approach to the world of science as well as the development of innovations.
In a 2019 survey conducted by the international nonprofit Research Triangle Institute about L’Oréal’s For Women in Science program, however, 91% of the women identified gender discrimination as a barrier to their success, with an overwhelming 100% of respondents identifying self-doubt and a lack of confidence (Lindquist et al. 19, 23). To begin tackling these obstacles requires an examination of one major factor that, as a study from the peer-reviewed Canadian Medical Association Journal finds, has been scrutinized in recent years for diminishing the self-esteem of girls during adolescence: social media (Abi-Jaoude et al. 136).
Platforms such as TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram have exploded in popularity while heavily influencing the way adolescents think and behave, but their negative impacts on users’ mental health have raised questions as to whether their potential benefits can be realized to support female participation in STEM. Similar to other types of popular media like television and movies, social media provides opportunities for individuals and organizations to promote new ideas and trends but also can serve to reinforce stereotypes. While all three forms of media have attempted to overcome gender stereotypes within the STEM fields, social media holds the most potential, signaling advocates to leverage it as a means to dismantle stereotypes that hinder girls from building the self-confidence and strong mindset that are necessary to increase female representation within the STEM fields.
Originally, the purpose of social media was to connect individuals with their family, friends, and work colleagues regardless of location – to surpass any physical barriers to communication. However, whether intentionally or unintentionally, social media has evolved into a vehicle for popularizing trends and fashion statements that emphasize specific kinds of physical appearances and visual appeal which prevent an equalized connection among individuals. One major effect of this exposure to photo- and video-based media is that young individuals become preoccupied with ways to enhance their physical appearance and focus on how to present themselves to their online audience, as a study from the peer-reviewed psychological journal Body Image finds (Choukas-Bradley et al. 164). With a significant amount of time spent on interacting with visual-based social media, adolescent girls often become so fixated on conforming to what is popular to feel accepted they lose the opportunity to expand their interests beyond physical appearances. Instead, they deepen insecurities, as evidenced by the 41% of women who “fe[el] pressure to wear a different outfit every time” they leave the house in order to meet societal expectations and online trends, notes journalist Rachel Monroe who writes about cultural phenomena (15).
Moreover, topics that girls could benefit from exploring through social media, such as STEM fields, are often stereotyped to be popular among unfashionably dressed males who put little to no effort into their appearances and spend many hours playing video games. A study from the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that such stereotypes decrease girls’ interest and perception of their abilities in subjects like computer science (Cheryan et al. 661). It is not surprising, then, that young girls tend to veer away from STEM topics and gravitate toward trends and people that social media endorses during their adolescence which, according to Professor of Sociology at Central Michigan University David A. Kinney, is a crucial period for the development of their identity (21).
In addition to social media, other forms of media like movies and television shows still emphasize the importance of visual appeal and reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, only about 10% of science fiction movies feature women as a solo lead character, as reported by the feminist nonprofit Women’s Media Center (Stone 5). However, even when females do hold a major role in STEM films, their success is dependent on their physical appearance and reliance on a male character, according to a study by Associate Professor Eva Flicker in the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna (316-17). This underrepresentation increases the risk of confirming adolescents’ mental image of a female as someone who should focus on her femininity and not involve herself with fields typically dominated by males.
Indeed, Associate Professor Bradley J. Bond who studies the relationship between media and identity formation at the University of San Diego finds that girls who watch television shows that feature stereotypical gender roles are less interested in STEM careers and more often believe that scientists are males, whereas girls who see clips highlighting female scientists are much less likely to adopt such beliefs (91). Boys’ perceptions are also influenced, according to a study from the peer-reviewed The British Journal of Development Psychology, which reports that higher levels of viewing television shows correspond with an increased chance that a boy believes males are better than females (Halim et al. 132). The content of movies and television shows matter, and like social media, they can reinforce gender stereotypes, especially in relation to STEM fields, by increasing the probability that girls will lose interest in exploring STEM during the critical years of identity development.
One key way to reverse this trend is by providing girls with female role models, a task that popular media is increasingly attempting to accomplish. One of the most prominent examples of a female role model in media is Dana Scully from the X-Files series, who was the first multidimensional female STEM character to play a lead role. In a study conducted by 21st Century Fox and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, half of the women that knew who she was said that she increased their interest in STEM, and nearly two-thirds of women with a STEM profession noted that she was their role model (“The Scully Effect”). This “Scully Effect” was able to positively influence a significant group of females in that generation, but the overall impact that films and television shows can have is limited when compared to social media, due to the finite duration of a film or show and the characters often being fictional.
On the other hand, social media provides girls with the opportunity to communicate with real-life, influential female STEM leaders and stay updated with their activities. Through these women and the organizations they represent, girls have immediate access to a wide array of information about STEM careers, educational opportunities, and awareness of gender discrimination. As girls become more socially aware of the challenges facing women in STEM, a study from the peer-reviewed journal Psychology of Women Quarterly finds that girls become more interested in connecting with female role models (Pietri et al. 212). Therefore, social media has the potential to inspire more curiosity and self-confidence among girls when compared to films and television shows because it can connect them to inspiring women in STEM who can share their real-life stories in an on-going manner.
What distinguishes social media from the two other types of media, then, is its potential to change the level of female participation in STEM by inviting advocates to actively reach out and raise awareness. By encouraging supporters to engage with each other on topics that span a range of ideas, social media provides an easy and accessible way for adolescents to develop relationships over a relatively short amount of time. According to a survey by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank that reports social and demographic trends, a majority of teenagers stated that they believe social media has a positive impact on their lives because it allows them to “feel more connected” to the lives of people they care about as well as to “people who will support them through tough times” (Anderson and Jiang). As such, social media has the capability to provide girls with numerous opportunities to meet and bond with female STEM professionals who are breaking gender stereotypes.
Along with the meaningful relationships girls can create with female STEM role models, social media provides aspiring young women in STEM the opportunity to engage with a wide diversity of individuals. Database company Statista’s report that over 3.6 billion people around the world used social media in 2020 and that 4.41 billion people are projected to use these platforms in 2025 demonstrates how social media has given women the opportunity to find and unite with those whose views align with theirs (“Number of Social Network Users”). For example, the #ILookLikeAnEngineer movement on Twitter encourages women who work in STEM to share an image and description of themselves to promote the diverse identities of STEM-driven females, challenging the stereotype that women are not fit to work in a STEM field, according to TechRepublic, a publishing website and a social community for IT professionals (Carson). Given the ease of communication achievable with social media, girls would be able to find and connect with female STEM professionals who not only hold the same values but also share similar backgrounds and appearances.
Despite the accessible nature of social media, economic motivations behind the marketing strategies of companies that run these platforms could place possible barriers to promoting females in STEM. In 2019, these businesses totaled $36.14 billion in social media advertising revenue in the United States, as Statista informs (“Social Network Advertising Revenues”). Given the emphasis that advertisements and social media platforms place on photos and videos as well as the clear effect that influencers’ physical appearance has on the decisions of consumers, visual appeal becomes an important part of social media content, according to a study from the peer-reviewed Journal of Interactive Advertising (Chu and Kamal 27). While this focus on appearance may correlate with lower interest in STEM for girls, images promoting females in STEM can be posted free of charge to draw attention to this issue, with the goal of reversing this existing correlation.
This stands in contrast to the long and complex process in which a movie or television show is produced, which typically costs around $100 to $150 million and requires a large group of people to be involved, including the cast, crew, scriptwriters, producers, and directors, as the Nashville Film Institute reports (“How Much”). Moreover, there is no guarantee the film or movie will generate enough revenue to be profitable or influential in addressing gender stereotypes. More promising is social media since any user with an account can create and post content as often as desired and work as much as they would like to effect change. With such advantages, the possibility of increasing the number of women in STEM fields improves, and the goal becomes more attainable.
Ensuring that young girls feel emboldened, rather than dissuaded, to explore STEM disciplines through social media is critical, and this hinges on utilizing its various platforms as vehicles to broaden these girls’ exposure to potential career paths and to support their aspirations. Similar to other forms of popular media like movies, social media can easily consume girls’ thoughts with a deluge of images, videos, or comments revolving around visual appeal. Since many girls use social media during their teenage years, a period crucial in the formation of a person’s identity, negative perceptions commonly associated with exposure to social media can significantly erode their self-confidence as well as their perceived ability and interest to pursue academic topics, most notably STEM-related ones. Despite these drawbacks, unlike other types of media, social media offers an invaluable opportunity for girls to connect with each other and with women professionals, allowing strong relationships to form between individuals across the world. As such, girls with these interests can focus their time on learning how to participate in STEM activities without compromising who they are as a person. Thus, supporters for women in STEM should actively reach out to girls through social media to set a new trend that diversifies the development of science and innovation for generations to come.
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