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Wanted: Television role models for female academics

As I go into my third year of college this September, a recent article on The Guardian inspired me. I would consider myself an aspiring academic, and the article revealed the results from a report that stated only 12% of third-year female PhD students want a career in academia.This is not to say that a majority of male students would prefer a career in academia either – the proportion is only about 21% in that case – but the reasons for not pursuing this field are remarkably different between genders.

In the study, females revealed that the competitive nature of an academic career was unappealing, and their concerns stem from a lack of self-confidence. A particularly striking result from the study revealed that female students believe that their role models (successful women in academia) have sacrificed a lot. Specifically, these women have sacrificed their femininity and show more masculine traits such as aggression and competitiveness.

Marie Wilson once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and this seems to hold especially true for women seeking to enter a competitive career. To increase the numbers of women in underrepresented areas it is essential to have role models, including those we see in the media. Female students need to see successful, strong women in academia who are counter to the masculine stereotypes they perceive. Television has the ability to present necessary role models for female academics.

In television, women rarely have professional success outside of the home and, if they do have careers, they seem doomed to fail at such careers. (An example of this is in EastEnders when Samantha leaves her husband to pursue her career but, ultimately, is unsuccessful.) The “power women” in television are often portrayed to be the villain, reinforcing the competitive and aggressive stereotype held by female students. Professional achievements also strongly correlate with physical appearance on television where less career-focused women are more typically beautiful than ambitious female characters. (Seen as a caricature in The Big Bang Theory with the characters Penny and Amy, respectively.)

There are so many other examples, it is easy to see where these students get stereotyped characteristics of females in academia.

The roles of women are constantly changing in the world, and so should the representation of women on television. It is imperative that students, including myself, can see that there are successful, powerful women who are not Bree from Desperate Housewives, or Peggy from Mad Men. Students need role models who come from a variety of backgrounds and are pursuing a variety of careers. And they need to feel confident to be role models for the next generation of stereotype-burdened students.

Emily Heer lives in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism. She loves dance, photography, music, and her inspiration is gender-equality guru Susan Bordo.

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