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4 Ways to Present STEM Role Models Girls Will Find Inspiring (Opinion)

How do I inspire girls to get interested in STEM?

In the book and television series Lessons in Chemistry, when asked to name a female scientist, one of the characters can only think of Marie Curie. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, as the story is set in the 1960s, when gender norms prevented most women from pursuing science.

But fast forward to today, and in some respects, not much has changed. In one of our daughters’ 5th grade classroom, students were asked the same question. Marie Curie was among the scant few named, and even fewer knew her story. Yet, we know that female role models are critical in inspiring girls to pursue science.

So how can educators and parents best expose students to more female scientists as potential role models?

The answer may seem simultaneously obvious and counterintuitive: In presenting potential role models, we need to share not only their successes but also their struggles—and importantly, how they overcame hurdles along the way. For the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, this means breaking out from common perceptions. Here are four research-backed ways to do it:

Broaden stereotypes. The canonical image of a scientist is a lone genius who has “aha” breakthroughs. That image is slowly evolving to show scientists working in teams over extended periods of time, but what about the “genius” part? How often do we hear and see stories of scientists who worked hard—even struggled—to make their discoveries? And how often are they women?

The classic “Draw a Scientist” studies that started in the late 1960s show the evolution of how young people perceive science and scientists. For example, while less than 1 percent of children drew someone female when prompted to “draw a scientist” in the late 1960s, a 2018 meta-analysis found that some 33 percent of pictures now appeared female.

Abundant research shows the benefits of female role models for encouraging interest in science for young women, especially women of color. Having a shared identity helps young people see that the science pathway is possible while helping to signal belonging.

Share the struggles. Merely exposing young people to more female scientists isn’t enough. How they are portrayed also matters. Think about Marie Curie. When some of us were growing up, we might have heard something like “Marie Curie was a brilliant chemist who was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize along with her husband Pierre Curie.” We perhaps then heard about the couple’s many accomplishments and successes. Without knowing her story, it could be challenging to see ourselves ever being like this unique, brilliant woman.

But Marie Curie, like many scientists, had her fair share of struggles. She had to balance her work with her family while also having few resources, all while facing the sexism of her time in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. She was also an immigrant, having to leave Poland to pursue an education in France, where women could attend university.

New research suggests that telling this story in full may go a long way in making Marie Curie (and others) a more effective role model, especially for those in underrepresented groups. In a 2024 study in the “Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,” Jessica Gladstone and colleagues found that presenting a role model to girls whose abilities and interests developed over time led to greater motivation in STEM among girls of color.

Consider other identities. Gender is only one dimension of identity that can influence the effectiveness of a role model. Race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and other intersectional identities also contribute. Looking at role models for Latina women in STEM fields, co-author Pietri and colleagues find that being able to identify with scientists is linked to more trust and belonging as well as interest in STEM environments. Presenting potential role models, whether in a classroom or at home, is about far more than superlatives (“first woman,” first Latina,” etc.). Rather, children benefit from seeing that anyone, including themselves, can be a scientist and that no one is born a “brilliant scientist.”

Show scientists in action. A great way to expose students to scientists is through films. Role models are distinct from mentors or teachers, as they are often someone whom young people have never interacted with, so impressions of them are shaped by stories. Whether in documentaries, historical fiction (such as Katherine Johnson in the film “Hidden Figures”), or fantasy (such as Shuri in “Black Panther”), these images can inspire and empower young people. We look forward to seeing big-screen portrayals of lesser-known female scientists like physicist Lise Meitner and astronomer Vera Rubin, as well as contemporary scientists like Nobel laureates Jennifer Doudna and Katalin Karikó.

The more we tell the stories of women scientists, both their successes and struggles, the more we can inspire and empower the next generation.

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