If you are a woman whose formative years took place between 1993 and 2002 and you now work in the STEM, there is a good chance you probably were a fan of The X-Files. The concept of Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully as a no-nonsense, strong and kickass medical doctor, forensic pathologist and FBI agent inspiring a generation of young women to pursue careers in science has always been rumored, but there was never any concrete data to back it up….until now.
Thanks to new research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media of 2,021 online participants (ages 25 and older), The Scully Effect has now been proven to be real. According to the survey, women who watched The X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM, over 60% of those work in STEM said Scully served as a role model, and amongst women who are familiar with Scully’s character, 63% say Scully increased their confidence that they could excel in a male-dominated profession. The authors of the study wrote, “It is easy to dismiss entertainment media as simply entertaining, but half a century of social science research reveals that the characters, images, and storylines in media shape our everyday lives in profound ways.12 They provide subtle and not-so-subtle cues about what we should prioritize in our lives, how we should spend our time, how we should spend our income, who we should love, how we should love, how to overcome hardships, etc. In the case of the “Scully Effect,” entertainment media influences what career options girls and women can envision for themselves. In Gillian Anderson’s own words, Scully’s character “manifested a woman not yet depicted on TV, and as the fan response soon proved, a desperately needed role model for women of all ages, everywhere.”
Abby Norman summed up the appeal of the character last year for Paste Magazine. “For me—and I’m sure many other young women who grew up watching it—Dana Scully was one of the first times I truly identified with a fictional character. I needed someone to give me permission to question what I’d been told was the truth. I was desperately seeking strong female role models who had depth and definition beyond the normal tropes—none of which interested me, even as a preteen. As a venerable dweeb, I also was greatly in need of someone to tell me that being smart was an asset rather than an affliction,” she wrote.
This study is encouraging as more men continue to major in STEM fields in college. In 2013, even though women earn the majority of all bachelor’s degrees, they earned only 18 percent of all degrees in computer sciences, 19 percent in engineering, and 43 percent in mathematics. This gap then feeds into the workforce pipeline with women hold only 24% of jobs in STEM and only 10% of graduate degrees earned by women are in STEM fields, compared to 24% of graduate degrees earned by men.