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STEM TV Mirrors Racial, Gender Disparities in STEM Fields, Study Shows

Mother and daughter lying in bed looking at a digital tablet

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Key Takeaways

  • Children's programming around science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) lacks diversity, especially when it comes to women and Latinx characters.
  • This mirrors real-life shortcomings in STEM fields today.
  • All children need exposure to diverse characters in STEM programs not only to identify and aspire, but also to recognize these fields as equal opportunity professions.

A new study published in the Journal of Children and Media found that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) television programming for children lacks diversity, especially when it comes to female and Latinx representation.

These findings reflect real-life inequities within STEM fields.

“We have a society-wide push to get more people interested in STEM, and specifically a more diverse STEM workforce," says lead study author Fashina Aladé, assistant professor in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University. "We know that some of the disparities of who participates in STEM later on start early with children's interests.”

Introducing Characters to Children

The study focused on programs targeted toward children aged 3-6 years old.

Psychologist and learning specialist Rebecca Mannis, PhD, points out that children of this age are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development, which means they're beginning to associate language with symbols and take in the world largely through categorization.

"It’s important to think about ways to create explicit information that is both high-quality and attuned to the opportunities that our children deserve," Mannis says. "It’s also important to be thinking about the implicit message through representations."

Researchers selected a random sampling of 90 episodes across 30 STEM-identifying programs aired on television or streaming platforms. To capture representation, characters in these episodes were coded into categories regarding gender, age, type of being, race or ethnicity, and centrality to the plot. A total of 1086 characters were coded.

The analysis showed the majority of adult characters who held STEM occupations were overwhelmingly male at 77%. And when comparing characters overall to population statistics, Black, Indigenous, and especially Latinx representation lacked significantly.

Interestingly, however, white characters were not over-represented. Instead, a relatively large percentage of characters were categorized as "racially ambiguous/unsure" for having either an ambiguous tan complexion or non-human coloring like pink or purple.

This isn't necessarily negative, but Aladé points out that children might not easily connect the dots between producers' intentions and real-world diversity.

“While we don't have much to go off of for racial and diversity cues, I do think we know that explicit messages are really important for kids at that age," Aladé says. "So just having pink and blue characters is probably not enough to get the kids to really connect that message that you can look many different ways and be interested in STEM.”

Institutional Shortcomings

In reality, getting children interested in STEM at an early age is just one hurdle in bridging STEM's diversity gap. Female, Black, and Latinx students and early-career workers are more likely to leave STEM fields than their White male peers. The underlying causes of this must be understood and addressed.

A 2019 study shows Black and Latinx students enrolled in STEM programs are more likely to drop out or switch majors than their White peers. Researchers theorized that racial stereotypes regarding intellectual ability are likely exacerbated in STEM programs, which can lead to students feeling excluded.

Fashina Aladé, Researcher

For those people who are in classrooms or workplaces and are surrounded by white males, who quite frankly have it in their minds that they are the ones who belong there, that’s a big part of what is then pushing people out.

— Fashina Aladé, Researcher

This is echoed in another analysis that compared the experience of students of color studying STEM disciplines at historically Black colleges and universities to that of students of color studying the same at predominantly white institutions.

The research revealed that while students at historically Black colleges and universities saw STEM disciplines as diverse and felt supported by their programs, students at predominantly White institutions felt excluded and struggled to create an inclusive campus climate.

And this doesn't necessarily get better after college. Even after graduating with STEM degrees and entering the workforce, 62% of Black STEM workers say they have experienced discrimination at work because of their race or ethnicity. Forty-two percent of Latin STEM workers say the same.

“For those people who are in classrooms or workplaces and are surrounded by white males, who quite frankly have it in their minds that they are the ones who belong there, that’s a big part of what is then pushing people out or causing them to drop out at those later stages,” Aladé says.

This innate sense of belonging ties back to the need for diverse representation in children's shows. While it is certainly crucial for children of color to identify with these characters, it's equally important that white children see characters that reinforce the idea that STEM fields are equal opportunity professions.

“This is not just about children of color seeing themselves," Aladé says. "This is really about all kids believing, young white boys believing, that everyone belongs in STEM."

Rebecca Mannis, PhD

Kids are hardwired to read us like a book. It is important that our words and actions match one another, and that we create opportunities for open discussion.

— Rebecca Mannis, PhD

Characters as Role Models

Women make up 47% of the workforce, yet are still underrepresented in engineering and computer science fields.

Women have gained footing in some STEM occupations, but not all. When it comes to health care, women make up 75% of practitioners and technicians. But looking at computer occupations, one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying STEM fields, the number of women in the workforce has actually decreased since 1990.

Without adequate female representation in these fields, young girls often lack direct role models to shape their STEM careers aspirations. The same goes for young Black and Latinx children.

Here, television programming can be especially influential.

"If [children] can watch a show and develop a strong affinity or relationship with the character that they love, and that character talks about these different career options and opportunities, that can have a huge impact on a kid who doesn’t have those real life examples or easy access to them,” Aladé says.

As producers work toward children's STEM programming that more accurately reflects our society, parents can use shortcomings as teachable moments.

Mannis suggests taking the opportunity to engage with your child when observing a lack of diverse characters on their screen. Ask them about the sort of characters they would like to see, or what they think the experience of the only girl in the lab might've been. In this way, you're helping them to notice these issues.

"Kids are hardwired to read us like a book," Mannis says. "It is important that our words and actions match one another, and that we create opportunities for open discussion."

What This Means For You

It's important for children to observe a diverse range of characters in STEM fields for both their own aspirations and recognition that STEM is for everyone. You can play an active role in helping your child notice racial and gender disparities in programs by asking them questions about the characters on their screens.

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Article Sources
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  1. Aladé, F., Lauricella, A., Kumar, Y. and Wartella, E., 2020. Who’s modeling STEM for kids? A character analysis of children’s STEM-focused television in the U.S. Journal of Children and Media, pp.1-20. doi: 10.1080/17482798.2020.1810087

  2. American Institutes for Research, 2014. Leaving STEM: STEM Ph.D. Holders In Non-STEM Careers. [online] American Institutes for Research.

  3. Winkle-Wagner, R. and McCoy, D., 2016. Feeling like an “Alien” or “Family”? Comparing students and faculty experiences of diversity in STEM disciplines at a PWI and an HBCURace Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), pp.593-606. doi:10.1080/13613324.2016.1248835

  4. Educational Researcher, 2019. Corrigendum to “Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields”. 48(4), pp.244-244. doi:10.3102%2F0013189X19831006

  5. Funk, C., Parker, K. and Caiazza, T., 2018. Women And Men In STEM Often At Odds Over Workplace Equity. [online] Pew Research Center.