08 Mar 2007

Invisible Witnesses? New research project investigates gender representations of scientists in the media

OU Scientist and Presenter Janet Sumner

OU Scientist and Presenter Janet Sumner

The Open University is assisting the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (UKRC) in a new research project, Invisible Witnesses? to investigate gendered representations of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (STEM) on UK television.

Despite the increased use of mobile phones, and engagement with digital games and social networking sites, the most popular leisure activity for children and young people is still television.

Little is known about whether the images of STEM they see on TV and the activities they see scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians engaged in influences the development of their views of these professions.

Liz Whitelegg, who is also a joint author of the recently published Institute of Physics report ‘Girls in the Physics Classroom’ (Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006) said: "Students, particularly girls, show a declining interest in science as they progress through school. Their attitudes to science are affected by the value they place on science learning and their feeling of having a place in the subject.

"If the images they see on TV are alien to them, then this is yet another factor than will discourage them from engaging with the subject."

However, the recent Women and Work Commission Report (2006) suggests that positive images of women scientists on TV may be one important aspect in a complex web of factors that influence future choices of study pathways and careers.

The project team has been commissioned to investigate these issues in two related phases of the Invisible Witnesses? project.

The first phase of the project will be an analysis of television content to investigate and quantify images of STEM on UK television in two one-week samples. They will also analyse a range of programme genres, ranging from news and current affairs to cartoons and animations, aimed at children and young people to investigate the content of these programmes from a gender perspective.

The second phase of the project we will use group interviews to explore how children and young people interpret and take in images of STEM on television. In particular they will investigate how representations from popular culture might influence participants’ views about the desirability and achievability of a career in STEM.

Dr Richard Holliman, who is leading the research team with Liz Whitelegg said, "We’re interested in learning why the portrayal of the elderly, white male scientist, the stereotypical image of Einstein, retains such power even though it fails to represent the authentic image of the vast majority of working scientists in the 21st Century.

"The question we want to answer in the project is, do images from television open up options for girls to study post-compulsory science and choose to become scientists, or – more crucially – do they limit them?"

The project team consists of Liz Whitelegg, Dr Richard Holliman, Professor Eileen Scanlon and Dr Barbara Hodgson who are all members of the OU’s Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology

The project is due to be completed by the end of September 2007.

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