So often the contributions of women and people of color have been left out of the history books—this is especially true for those who have made major contributions in science and technology. Too many of their stories are obscured or completely unknown, including both leaders who single-handedly changed their fields and those who were essential members of teams.
Come listen to oral histories from an impressive roster of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) leaders in the Administration talking about amazing STEM heroes who should be household names, including:
STEM Innovators: America Needs More of You!
From day one, the President has been a strong advocate for attracting, training, and retaining more of America’s talent to STEM fields.Jobs of the 21st century are increasingly requiring STEM skills (80 percent of the fastest growing occupations require math and science skills), and there is a mismatch between the supply and growing demand for STEM-skilled workers. The STEM employment gap in the United States is further compounded by persistent diversity challenges. Despite the fact that women comprise half of the U.S. population and half of college students, they represent only 28 percent of STEM workers. Today there are more than half a million unfilled jobs in information technology across all sectors of the economy, and yet, the number of women in computer and mathematical occupations is actually declining in contrast to other STEM fields. Each year the gap in the agricultural workforce grows by more than 20,000 more jobs than graduates produced. By 2025, there will be about 200,000 unfilled jobs in the agricultural sciences.
How can we reconcile these workforce gaps and what does it mean for the future of the United States economy if these trends continue? In order to sustain American innovation, there is an opportunity to tackle this issue from all angles—from inside the classroom, in workplace culture, through entertainment media.
STEM Opportunity: If we can see it, we can be it
Telling the stories of the women in STEM obscured by history is important for many reasons—not only because it’s an important part of our heritage that shouldn’t be lost, but also because it’s key to attracting more talent to STEM fields. In order to inspire all of America’s children to be the next generation of discoverers, inventors, and high-tech entrepreneurs, it’s essential to provide them with diverse role models—both past and present. Role models shape the aspirations of youth and adults alike—they can help students envision themselves as STEM professionals, enhance perceptions of STEM careers, and boost confidence in studying STEM subjects.
Recent headlines about Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Katherine Johnson in an upcoming film, which will bring to life the nearly lost story of Johnson and other black women who were crucial to the success of the NASA space missions of the 1950s and 1960s, signals that the STEM and storytelling interface is perhaps entering the dawn of a new era. It is truly an exciting time—there is momentum building behind the trend to harness the power of media and storytelling to catalyze change, specifically in the STEM inclusion domain. Popular entertainment media is powerful—it can influence the public’s perceptions towards STEM by shaping, cultivating, or reinforcing the cultural meanings of STEM fields and careers. For example, have you heard of the “CSI Effect”? In the early 2000s, after the introduction of various fictional CSI crime shows, the public became fascinated with the science behind crime-scene investigations. This positive, dramatic portrayal of forensic science spurred significant increases in forensic science program applications at universities, with undergraduate and graduate degree enrollment in these programs almost doubling from 2000 to 2005.
Currently, in depictions of STEM professionals in family films, men outpace women 5 to 1, and when it comes to portrayals of computer scientists and engineers, it’s 14 to 1. Rather than continue to reinforce inequality on screen, the entertainment industry has the opportunity to paint a picture of the inclusive STEM workforce the Nation already has and aspires to expand, and to reflect the excitement and joy that is intrinsic to many STEM professions and social impacts of STEM jobs.
That’s why the Administration is working with the media and entertainment industry to raise awareness that the image of STEM jobs on screen—specifically the people who are cast in television and film animation, news and documentaries, and ads—tells a story of who does and can have STEM careers. Broadening our images of STEM professionals is an important complement to other ongoing efforts to foster inclusion of historically underrepresented groups like boys and girls of color to help lift the Nation’s game in STEM education. Targeted efforts by the entertainment community to enhance the profile of STEM jobs and the people who hold them have great promise to influence young people’s career choices and thereby improve the Nation’s workforce and economy.
Here’s the task ahead—we hope you will help. There are (at least) three opportunities in which STEM-related depictions in entertainment media can promote inclusion:
What stories in STEM need to be told? Share thoughts with us via this webform—including by answering any of the questions provided or adding your own.We hope you are inspired by this group of Untold Stories and will share more!
Jo Handelsman is Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
Megan Smith is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer
Knatokie Ford is a Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy