The remaining shadows in the visibility of female scientists

  • Scientific Culture and Innovation Unit
  • July 29th, 2021
Fanny Petit (left) and María Iranzo, researchers of the University of Valencia.
Fanny Petit (left) and María Iranzo, researchers of the University of Valencia.

Fanny Petit and María Iranzo, researcher from the Department of Didactics of Experimental and Social Sciences and communication manager of the Parc Cientific Foundation University of Valencia (UV), respectively, analyse how cinema and the media have represented female scientists in recent years.

Invisible, hidden, innermost, secret, ethereal, mysterious. The non-presence of women in the collective imagination produces a “rare, unreal, uneven” history. This is how it was described, already at the beginning of the last century, by one of the greatest references of feminism: Virginia Woolf. But… what does the collective imagination create?

According to the philosopher Edgar Morin, collective imaginaries are the ideas and images that serve as a relay and support for the other ideological forms of societies, such as the founding political myths of the institutions of power. Let’s do an exercise in imagination: who do we see when we think of power? Who do we see at the top of institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the European Medicines Agency?

A priori, it could be said that most of us imagine white men in ties. However, if we take a quick X-ray of the health workers, for example, we see that this representation does not conform to reality. In Spain, according to the Labour Force Survey (EPA) at the end of 2020, almost 80% of people who work in health activities are women. So why is there such a mismatch? Does the media and audiovisual reality correspond to the social and palpable reality?

Some studies show that women scientists have not had the support or representation they deserve compared to the work they have done over the centuries. In the current pandemic context, where disease as a concept and reflection is more present than ever, the image of a male doctor can quickly come to mind. Yes, a male doctor. According to a study by Rofes and Cano (2014), we generally associate the picture of the male doctor with the image of the female nurse. Yes, a female nurse. The topics still persist and, nevertheless, the representation of women both in the health field in particular and in the scientific field in general continues to be lower than that of men.

To start with a graphic example – never better said – a recent study directed by Martí Domínguez, from the Department of Language Theory and Communication Sciences and a professor at the UV, concludes that the vignettes published in the media about the pandemic represent wrongly the social reality of health professionals. According to research, female doctors are represented by 5% in illustrations. And not only that, but when the two genders – men and women – of health personnel appear, they are the ones who play a passive role, in addition to the sexualisation that they still suffer in this type of figure.

But let’s get on with Morin. As early as 1956, the philosopher stated that in a film each shot becomes a particular symbol to which new symbols are associated. That is to say, every image is an abstraction and that every image represents a specific symbol, which in turn creates new meanings. Based on this statement, we can say what many theorists have confirmed throughout the last century: cinema is a clear constructor of social reality. The authors Bordwell and Thompson in their book The Art of Cinematography also follow this line: “[Movies] provide us with opportunities to exercise and develop our ability to pay attention, to anticipate future events, to draw conclusions and to construct a whole by starting from the parts”.

Do we see female scientists playing important roles in the cinema? Or, in the same way that we imagine gentlemen in ties in charge of the WHO, do we imagine gentlemen in lab coats and glasses in science fiction films? In 1983, Harvard University professor David Wade Chambers designed the DAST (Draw a scientist test), a test in which elementary school students from different countries had to draw a scientist, and then see what stereotypes they were associated with the image of the scientific community. In the first study, of the nearly 5,000 students who took the test, only 28 girls – and no boys – drew a female scientist.


Female scientists in the seventh art

In the same way that more and more the presence of women in scientific fields is greater, scientists also appear more in the cinema, specifically in science fiction cinema. Fanny Petit, a researcher at the Department of Didactics of Experimental and Social Sciences of the UV, has analysed the role of women in these types of films. “We have to separate between before and after Contact (1997). Nor is it necessary to base it on that exact date, but it is true that in the films after this Robert Zemeckis film there is a different treatment”, explains the expert.

In previous films, the role of the scientists was secondary, supporting the protagonist who was normally a man. There are several examples that the author cites: “In the 007 films, James Bond’s support is a nuclear physicist… of course, a nuclear physics babe. Another example is The saint (1997), where they go after an energy source and the girl is the scientist, but she again plays the role of supporting the protagonist. In that case, she is a weak girl, who was sick, it is always he who saves her... Another similar case is Chain Reaction (1996), in which Keanu Reeves is a doctoral student and his partner, Rachel Weisz seems to be at the same level of studies and knowledge, but she is the one who goes after him and the one who helps him research... In this case they are the two scientific protagonists, but he always takes the lead”.

But in Contact the story changes. Here the scientist is, for the first time, the protagonist of her own film. This adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book is inspired by a friend of the author who worked on the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project. In this case, it was Jodie Foster who was in charge of bringing the main character to life. Not only is she the protagonist, but she leads a group of researchers and the film reflects the difficulties that a woman has to go through in the scientific field in the nineties, something unprecedented to date.

However, this film had a clear antecedent regarding the role of scientists in the seventh art: the Jurassic Park saga. The female paleobotanist, played in the first film (1993) by Laura Dern, is no longer the typical girl who goes after the protagonist, but she is proactive throughout the film and she has her own way of working. “In the first instalment, she still plays the role of reinforcing the male scientist, who is in tune with the films of the time in which there is this duality between men and women, but the paleobotanist character was one of the first scientists in charge of her own decisions in science fiction cinema”, says Petit.

She believes that “thanks to those two films, the characters of scientists in the cinema have improved and evolved a lot”, but she is aware that there is still a long way to go. To mention some more recent cases, Petit cites the fictional cinematic universe that has broken all records at the box office: Marvel. “In Avengers, apart from the superheroines themselves such as Captain Marvel or Black Widow, a female scientist appears who has a biotechnology laboratory, which is the one who later creates the Vision character. There is also Shuri, sister of the Black Panther’s protagonist, and although they are very secondary characters within the entire universe, they are key to solving some of the most important plots”.

As she herself comments, that does not mean that everything is a bed of roses. It is only necessary to do a small exercise to see if we remember the names of these two female scientists or see if we remember the names of the male superheroes. “If we look at it, in the case of the Black Panther movie, this opposition is established in the brothers between him, a warrior, and her, a scientist. It still seems that the girl is the one who has to be by the side and, at the same time, someone to confront as a character, as a mirror”, reflects the researcher. The same happens with the character of astrophysicist Jane Foster – played by Natalie Portman in Thor’s films – as the contrast between him, a warrior and a god, and she, a scientist and a human, becomes evident.

Science fiction aside, do we see female scientist characters in other film genres? Fanny Petit points out that where more women are represented in this sense is in biopics or docudramas. This can be found in Hidden Figures (2016), the film that tells the story of three African-American scientists who worked for NASA in the sixties. Another example is the various adaptations that have been made of Marie Curie’s life, but Petit comments that “it depends a lot on whether the film is aimed at telling the scientific part or in reality, what is intended is to focus on the personal part of the scientist... in the latter case we are not moving forward, because what is important is to glimpse their professional merits”.

“It is endemic to cinema. It is still very difficult to find films in which the protagonist is a scientist”, says the expert. It is possible to imagine that in films where the setting is a dystopian future – a classic in science fiction – women will be stronger, but this is not the case. To illustrate it with a specific case, in Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence (2001), set in a future with robots, the role of women is that of the protagonist’s mother and the father is the scientist. As the researcher comments, “it is as if women could only exercise the sole role of mother and not mother and scientist, as it happens with the father”.


The media, the other builders

“In a broad sense, we can conceive mass communication as the institutionalised production and widespread diffusion of symbolic goods through the transmission and accumulation of information.” This is how sociologist John Thompson expressed in the 1990s how the media influenced the social construction of reality. Therefore, yes, it can be said that the media are, along with the cinema, the other creators of what surrounds us.

Surely there have been many times that you have heard that “if it doesn’t appear in the media, it doesn’t exist”. It is one of the keys to this century and many political personalities know it. Are female scientists in the media? Do we usually see them on television sets, giving interviews on radio stations or explaining a new development in the newspapers? In this last year, needless to say, the scientific community has gained an obvious role as a result of the pandemic.

María Iranzo and Guillermo López, researchers from the Department of Theory of Languages and Communication Sciences and professors of Journalism at the UV, have published a study in which they analyse how the generalist media have represented scientists who have become social references during the first wave of COVID-19 in Spain. The article yields interesting results, since it highlights that these scientific personalities have not only become regular sources, but also sometimes star in them: the media have paid attention to their statements, their aesthetics and their communication style.

However, one of the future lines of research that the article raises is why there is a strong gender inequality in terms of the referents studied: of the 27 referents mentioned in the informative pieces, only five are women: María Blasco, Margarita del Val, Inmaculada Casas, Teresa Moreno and Hermelinda Vanaclocha. “One hypothesis that we put forward to explain this inequality is the decrease in criteria when looking for parity in the sources”, explains María Iranzo.

In fact, the scientific news agency SINC organised some debates – which are available on its YouTube channel – on how the general media treatment had been during the first months of the pandemic. Among the reflections of the journalists themselves, when they spoke of the coverage of El País, the EFE agency or the SINC agency itself, they recognised that they had lowered the level of demand when seeking parity in the sources. Indirectly and involuntarily, the content had taken precedence over who gave the information.

Therefore, journalistic routines have contributed and do contribute to gender inequality in scientific sources? That’s right, as many theories and scientific communication articles have shown about this leitmotif in science journalism. In addition, the fact that they appear much more in information than in opinion is notorious. As Iranzo says, “in our study we have seen that El País or have given more voice to female scientists as columnists, but unfortunately this is not a general trend and very few women in science give their opinion in topics on which they are experts”.

In this sense, the journalism expert and professor points out that it is good for female scientists to be proactive: “A clear example of this is Margarita del Val, who participates in seminars, advises many people... the problem is that when a source is given and it is easy to reach, the media tend to stay only with that scientist because they do not seek more and relax, although there are many more people who are just as valid”. Not only that, but the author of the study comments that it would also help for the institutions themselves to favour or promote their experts, since as public or private organisations it would be interesting for them to seek that parity that is not yet a reality.

However, another factor that influences this pursuit of gender parity in scientific sources is whether the management of institutions and media is aware. “If there is a director who is not very sensitive to the issue, surely there is not that degree of involvement, so it is important that in senior positions there are people who are clear that parity must be there”, says Iranzo. She, who also works in the communication department of the UV Science Park, has the feeling that scientists – and women in general – are very demanding of themselves, “it costs us a lot to launch ourselves as spokespersons or experts because historically that is not it has been our space”. For this reason, the author also emphasises that it is important that institutions encourage their experts to speak, to be more visible.


A universal implication

Both Petit and Iranzo have reached the same conclusion throughout their careers studying the representation of women, in this case, scientists: “Equality between men and women and their visibility in scientific communication and dissemination is a joint effort, there has to be intention on the part of everyone”. From any area, with more or less visibility, you must row in the same direction, whether in the media, the cinematographic, the institutional or in the day-to-day.

Moreover, another of the spaces in which it is essential that gender parity in science is patent is in more primary education. Petit, who also works in a secondary school as a teacher, reflects on the cinema in its didactic role: “If the ministry proposes a minimum age to see certain films, it is because they know that one learns from cinema, and if they appear in them models of equality, boys and girls will get a lesson, but if they do not put anything in, obviously they will not obtain it”.

Thus, there are many ways in which the presence of women scientists can be promoted until reaching the same representation as their peers. Experts are aware that it takes time and involvement and, although many achievements have been made in the scientific community, their representation in terms of gender equality is not yet a reality. Despite this, both are optimistic. As María Iranzo concludes, “it is the work of journalists, of institutions, of management positions in all spheres, of teachers... in short, it is a universal involvement”.