German researchers say more women would choose a career in science if they had better role models on TV. They want to see more science and technology in soaps and films.
Berlinmedia researchers sifted through 14 days of TV programming, searching for scientists, mathematicians, computer experts and engineers. But almost all they found was men.
The researchers say 1.7 percent of all characters in fictional TV series, soap operas and films in Germany feature a scientific profession. And only 2 percent of characters work in engineering.
Within those professions, the study suggests female scientists and engineers were underrepresented.
Just 0.7 percent of all female characters worked in science, with 0.5 percent in engineering.
Female characters are more often nurses, teachers, beauticians, lawyers, doctors or police officers.
"In the 14 days [we analyzed], we did not find one woman who worked, for example, as an electrician, a computer scientist or mechanical engineer," says lead researcher, Marion Esch at Berlin's Technical University.
Their project is called "Mathematics, computer science, science and technology and equal opportunities in fictional formats" - or MINTiFF.
"Even when female characters on TV do have a job, they seem to define themselves less through their work than the male characters," Esch says. "The women focus more on love, family and their personal happiness."
Particularly in TV series, the fields of science and technology hardly exist. Writers and producers seem to ignore them.
Co-researcher Christoph Falkenroth says it is more than a German issue.
"It is a Europe-wide phenomenon," says Falkenroth.
The Berlin researchers say the best way to get more women to pursue careers in the sciences is to start by presenting with them more successful female scientists in soap operas and other programs that teenagers watch.
"Girls observe their environment very closely - from childhood on," says Esch. "They watching what women do and what men do. Girls need role models."
The researchers asked girls aged between 15 and 17 how they had become aware of their "dream" job.
About a quarter of them said it had been through watching television.
"TV series can definitely inspire an interest in a profession," Esch says.
In the United States, the theory has shown itself to be true in reality.
The crime series CSI - Crime Scene Investigation - features attractive women working in forensic science. In the ten years after it started, the number of women graduating in forensic science at US universities rose by 64 percent.
"There must be some correlation between what girls and women see on these forensic shows and the influx of women coming into forensic careers," says Corinne Marrinan, one of the authors on CSI.
A hard day's work
Marrinan says the series presents feminine, but strong and competent women.
"They are vulnerable, but they never lose their integrity," she says.
But fiction – no matter how close to reality - will always blur some aspects of the truth.
"Perhaps some girls that watch the series may believe that if they become a CSI they'll get to wear high-heel shoes and Prada clothes to crime scenes and that their hair and make-up will look excellent after a double shift," says Marrinan. "But I think most people understand that that's just Hollywood."
Back in Berlin, the researchers says TV needs to show women as women.
"It would be counter productive to show women working in science and technology who behave like men," says Esch.
Through their research, Esch and Falkenroth found that they will have to fight attitudes as well as the plain statistics if they are to change to status quo.
Some filmmakers told them that science and technology were "not sexy" enough and that "nobody was interested."
They organize workshops to bring authors and producers into contact with scientists.
"The filmmakers are always amazed how interesting science is when they learn more about it," Falkenroth says.
In the US, a similar project called "Science and Entertainment Exchange" also aims to connect entertainment industry professionals with scientists and engineers to encourage more accurate storylines in TV and film. It has been very successful and has been involved in films like "The Amazing Spiderman" and "Prometheus."
MINTiFF holds its own annual competition and presents 10,000 euros for the best ideas for scientific fictional productions. The money can be used for research. Films and TV series with scientific backgrounds tend to need more research than others and are more expensive.
One winner of the competition has just been broadcast - a TV detective story set against the backdrop of genetic engineering in agriculture. It also included a female scientist doing her PhD.
Even the producers of Germany's most popular soap opera "Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten" are taking note. Its newest character is a female scientist and she was born – in part – at a MINTiFF workshop.
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