Publish at March 08 2023 Updated March 08 2023

The importance of female role models in science

Their story inspires girls to follow in their footsteps

The first role models in our lives are usually our parents or guardians. They are the first adults we come across who seem to know how to survive in this world. After that, other potential icons appear. Whether they come from fiction or from encounters in social environments like school, these people inspire us in different areas. Some will offer models for relationships while others will inform the career we take.

The scientific community provides evidence of this. Indeed, we know that even today, despite improvements, in the fields of science, engineering or computer science women are underrepresented. These fields remain male-dominated and prejudices persist about the "supposed" inabilities of girls in mathematics or learned subjects. Yet, numerous studies have debunked these clichés time and time again. So how do we attract young women into these networks? Meeting role models seems to be a very effective solution. 60% of those in science and engineering jobs claim to have been inspired by female pioneers.

The importance of role models

The issue of female role models is central to the place of women in what are known in the Anglo-Saxon world as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. Already in early childhood, seeing images of female researchers or computer scientists can prompt observation-based learning. Young girls will discover scientists in books, video vignettes, or shows and replicate, in games, the perceived actions.

This issue of role models is not just for girls. Britain, for example, is asking how to attract more young people in general to science fields. Examples become important to demystify science-related jobs, tasks and opportunities. The same is true of ethnic minorities on the U.S. side. Indeed, black and Hispanic individuals are underrepresented in these professional environments. So there is something reassuring about seeing other similar individuals who have taken this path.

In fact, it seems that many students, even those who have enrolled in STEM-related fields of study need mentors during their training to reassure them. Research has shown that young women with same-sex mentors are somewhat more likely to continue and graduate than those with male mentors or none. Both male and female students often said that seeing other women succeed in the field helped them confirm their career choice. The role models who are most relevant generally possess these characteristics:

  1. These women are perceived as competent and successful.
  2. They have similar backgrounds to female learners
  3. Their successes must appear attainable

Models in different forms

So, which strategies work best? The first route seems the most obvious: connecting role models with children. NASA understands this, and every year for more than two decades, it has introduced students to technology used in the space program but also to professionals working for the agency. The important thing, as this document produced by various Canadian universities reminds us, is not to choose individuals who are too stereotypical or who seem far removed from their reality.

While it is not always possible to receive a female scientist or engineer in person, there is nothing to prevent schools from offering to read stories of women working in these fields. From pioneers like Hypatia or Marie Curie to modern ones, it is important to recognize from time immemorial how female figures have worked on scientific and mathematical issues. Even if, at times, their discoveries have been spoliated by male colleagues.

A series of books have been published in the United States of Vanderbilt University professors who became astronomers, bioarchaeologists and others. While not all individuals are women, they remain a more narrative and interesting way of explaining how they discovered their field of study and what they do in it.

Social networks

Social networks can also be instrumental in shaping the view of the role of scientist. Whether it's YouTube videos featuring female extension workers or experts in their field or photos of female researchers in their work environment, these images have their effect on children. The "Women Doing Science" Instagram account aims to be an important portal to show a variety of female professionals, many from ethnic minorities, working in laboratories or in computing activities. The account has nearly 95,000 followers, especially among younger women.

This is a testament to how influential it is in shaping the view of women in STEM settings. While not everyone who follows him will necessarily choose this path, many will say they think about it or at least feel that a woman has as much of a place as a man in a scientific research setting.

The question of activities in school matters a great deal, too. Women working for NASA suggest that exercises related to science fields should be organized as early as elementary school. That way, little girls won't have to wait until high school to see the technical possibilities. Incidentally, the issue of role-playing can be quite interesting. Indeed, a study published in fall 2022 in Psychological Science reportedly found that playing science or portraying a well-known female figure in science would help young students gain confidence in their abilities.

Finally, to support some wanting to enter this career from more precarious socioeconomic backgrounds, more and more projects are emerging, including scholarships, for female students to undertake training in math, science, or engineering fields. These financial supports and mentorships will hopefully have a positive impact on the scientific community, which will see more equality in the coming years.

Photo credit:


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