The popularity of the movie Hidden Figures has brought attention to the issues that women, and women of color in particular, face when they enter STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). The film has also had what some are calling a “Hidden Figures effect” — it is providing positive female role models and inspiring young girls to pursue their interests in math and science. Actress Taraji P. Hensen stated, “The movie is important, and I don’t want another young girl thinking that math and science is not for her.” Social science shows that positive role models are indeed a significant predictor of interest and success in STEM for women, and that movie stars are not the only ones who can fill those roles.
The term “role model” dates back to sociologist Robert K. Merton, who coined the term to describe the ways that people model sets of behaviors they admire in others. More recent research finds that women rely on and benefit from same-gender role models more than men do. For example, a longitudinal study of high school students found that an increased presence of female faculty and staff had positive impacts on the educational attainment of female students, but there were no gendered effects for males. And while girls often report that they are inspired by female role models, boys are less likely to attribute their career aspirations to a role model of either gender.
- Penelope Lockwood. 2006. “‘Someone Like Me Can Be Successful’: Do College Students Need Same-Gender Role Models?” Psychology of Women Quarterly 30(1): 36-46.
- Lucia Nixon and Michael Robinson. 1999. “The Educational Attainment of Young Women: Role Model Effects of Female High School Faculty.” Demography 36(2): 185-194.
More specifically, women who are exposed to successful females in STEM fields are more likely to do well in STEM classes, feel a greater sense of belonging among their STEM classmates and colleagues, and are more likely to have pro-science career aspirations. When women see other women in science, math, technology, and medical fields, they are less likely to associate these fields with masculinity and more likely to have confidence in their own skills.
- David Marx and Jasmin Roman. 2002. “Female Role Models: Protecting Women’s Math Test Performance.” Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 28(9): 1183 -1194.
- Lisa Rosenthal, Sheri Levy, Bonita London, Marci Lobel, and Carney Bazile. 2013. “In Pursuit of the MD: The Impact of Role Models, Identity Compatibility, and Belonging Among Undergraduate Women.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 68(7-8): 464-473.
- Danielle Young, Laurie Rudman, Helen Buettner, and Meghan Mclean. 2013. “The Influence of Female Role Models on Women’s Implicit Science Cognitions.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 37(3): 283-292.
However, movie stars and career idols are not the only ones who act as positive roles models. Peer groups are especially important for females in STEM. Girls who develop relationships with peers who are interested and successful in STEM classes are more likely to do well in those classes and are more likely to pursue STEM careers. And while males have been found to be less influenced by participation in educational communities like science camps or extracurriculars, the networks and social supports built in these environments help buffer females from the stereotypes and cultural norms surrounding women in STEM.
- Catherine Riegle-Crumb, George Farkas, and Chandra Muller. 2006. “The Role of Gender and Friendship in Advanced Course Taking.” Sociology of Education 79(3): 206-228.
- Jayne Stake and Shannon Nickens. 2005. “Adolescent Girls’ and Boys’ Science Peer Relationships and Perceptions of the Possible Self as Scientist.” Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 52(1): 1-11.
- James Daniel Lee. 2002. “More Than Ability: Gender and Personal Relationships Influence Science and Technology Involvement.” Sociology of Education 75(4): 349-374.