As a young Black girl growing up, I remember not seeing many scientists who looked like me. Often, I was the only girl who signed up to participate in science activities. I was the one asking all the science questions.
But that wasn’t enough to stop my curiosity. I was eager to learn so I explored the world around me, which meant reading from my grandparents’ Encyclopedia Britannica, catching fireflies, and watching science shows on television. Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus were my favorites, plus Family Matters, if that counts. Bill and Ms. Frizzle gave me a fascination with the wonders of the world of science. Urkel gave me the impression that science was innovative and magical, yet comical.
Besides being entertaining, what did these shows have in common? They lacked representation.
Bill did not look like me. Ms. Frizzle did not look like me. Urkel didn’t either, but he gave me some representation. These characters were also stereotypically geeky, clumsy, socially awkward, and all-around strange. There is nothing wrong with being any of those things, but looking back, I have to ask: can we get other representations of scientists?
According to a 2018 report by the Lyda Hill Foundation and Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, there are high levels of disparities among STEM characters in the media in terms of gender, STEM profession, and leadership roles. Among STEM characters represented in film, television, and streaming at the time of the report, 62.9% were men and 37.1% were women. If we dig further in terms of racial representation, 71.2% were white, followed by 16% Black, and even smaller percentages of characters were of other non-white races and ethnicities. Another interesting note was STEM profession portrayal: 65.8% of women characters had life science careers, whereas men were more often portrayed in more leadership roles and in tech careers.
If this is what we are seeing in mainstream media, what message is it sending?
Lack of representation creates a cycle of gatekeeping. It “normalizes inequality,” according to the 2016 White House report STEM Depiction Opportunities. This same report recognized that the media is a powerful tool for change, stating “the entertainment industry has an opportunity to paint the picture of an inclusive STEM workforce the Nation aspires to achieve, and reflect the exciting aspects and social impacts of STEM jobs.”
Lack of representation creates a cycle of gatekeeping. It “normalizes inequality.”
Fast forward years later, Black Panther — the second highest grossing film worldwide in 2018 — did just that. The movie created a reality where Black scientists were the leaders of innovation, science, and Black excellence. The character Shuri, played by Letitia Wright, became a sensation. A Black scientist, engineer, and inventor, she was also a brave and sarcastic leader (read: not geeky or clumsy). She showed young Black girls that they, too, can become scientists. This phenomenon was termed the Shuri Effect, like the Scully Effect (based on the character of Dana Scully, a woman who was a special agent and medical doctor on the television show The X-Files). In a study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, 50% of women said Scully increased their STEM interest, and the same was said about Shuri on social media.
Representation is improving on television and streaming services, too. In 2016, Danni Washington became the first African American woman to host a science television show, Xploration Nature Knows Best, which airs on FOX stations nationwide and can be streamed on Amazon Prime. On Netflix, a Black teenage science prodigy stars in the 2019 movie See You Yesterday. The animated Netflix series Ada Twist, Scientist, produced by the Obamas and based on the children’s book by Andrea Beaty, just premiered on September 28.
It’s heartening to see these glimmers of Black Girl Magic on our screens, but mainstream media still has a long way to go. Increasingly, Black women in science are forging their own representation using social media. Movements like #BLACKandSTEM and #BlackInX (a repository of all STEM groups that fall in #BlackIn_) have created powerful new avenues for visibility, and Twitter makes science icons like Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett seem more relatable than ever before. On TikTok, you see Black women in STEM going viral, like Raven the Science Maven and her music video informing the public about COVID-19. Botanical expert Alexis Nikole Nelson has a whopping 3 million followers on TikTok thanks to her wildly entertaining foraging tips. The AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador Program is harnessing social media and traditional media channels to position 125 women scientists from different backgrounds as role models for middle school girls. These ambassadors are taking their science outreach to the next level using original entertainment and engaging media to inspire the next generation.
Increasingly, Black women in science are forging their own representation using social media.
Increasing media representation on the big screen and on our personal screens is just the beginning. And since we have been dealing with intergenerational gatekeeping, it will take some time. To rewrite the future for Black women in science, we must go beyond representation and create environments that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. We need to be represented — and invited, nominated, hired, accepted, and recognized for the great work we do. I do not want the Black women scientists who come after me to feel like they are the “F.O.D.” (“First. Only. Different.”), a term coined by the barrier-breaking television producer Shonda Rhimes. I want the next generation to know the diversity of paths within science, and the creativity, intersectionality, and uniqueness they can bring to science.
I’m now a toxicologist, communicator, and STEM education advocate because of — or maybe in spite of — Bill Nye, Ms. Frizzle, and Urkel. I created my own platform Mademoiselle Scientist to share my science career journey. I believe that we each can use our own story to showcase the diversity of scientists and support the next generation. The tools are at our fingertips. I encourage all scientists to be the representation they want to see. And maybe someday that representation will become reality.
This series on gatekeeping in STEM was funded by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement of or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.
Editing contributed by Rebecca Dzombak. Illustration by Jenna Jablonski.