Fairy Godmothers > Robots: The Influence of Televised Gender Stereotypes and Counter-Stereotypes on Girls’ Perceptions of STEM

One-time exposure to stereotypical depictions of women on television has a greater impact than counter-stereotypical representation on young girls’ perception of STEM careers.


Women remain drastically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations. The gender disparity in STEM fields is thought to be partially driven by environmental factors reinforcing cultural stereotypes that women are less successful in STEM fields than men.

One way society reinforces these cultural stereotypes is through media depictions of women that are often stereotypically gendered.1 For example, scientists in television and film are mostly male, but when they are depicted as female, they are often portrayed as naïve, dependent or assistive to more important male scientist characters. Previous research has shown that television messages carry especially strong influence over children, as they lack real-world experiences compared to adults and base their judgements about gender norms often from these media messages. Therefore, representations of women in either STEM-related careers or more “stereotypical” careers may have significant impact on the decisions they make into adulthood.

In this study, the researchers investigated the impact of media depictions of women on elementary school-aged girls. Girls were randomly assigned to “stereotype”, “counter-stereotype”, or control conditions. Participants in the “stereotype” condition were shown clips from television shows featuring stereotypical depictions of girls (e.g., discussing fashion). Participants in the “counter-stereotype” condition were shown clips from shows depicting women and girls in STEM-related activities (e.g., building a robot). Survey information was then collected about the girls’ interest in pursuing STEM related careers and beliefs about their math and science abilities. Additionally, the girls’ perceptions of what gender a scientist typically is was obtained through a draw-a-scientist test.


Girls who were in the group that watched  the stereotype based television show  were more interested in stereotypical careers for women, such as homemaking or fashion design, and were more likely to perceive scientists as being male instead of female compared to participants in  the counter-stereotype and control television watching conditions.

  • Girls exposed to clips from television programs featuring women in STEM reported that they were more likely to watch the full programs than participants viewing clips with girls in stereotypical roles.
    • Girls in the counter-stereotype condition rated their interest in the programs as 2.48 on a scale of 1-3, and girls in the stereotype condition rated their interest as 2.08.
  • Viewing the clips of women in STEM did not significantly impact girls’ beliefs in their science and math abilities, or interest in a STEM-related career among participants.
  • However, viewing clips of women and girls in gender-stereotyped roles significantly increased girls’ interest in stereotypical careers (such as being a teacher, florist, or stay-at-home mom).
    • Girls in the stereotype watching condition rated their interest in stereotypical careers as 4.65, significantly higher than girls in the counter-stereotype condition (2.85) and girls in the control condition (2.65).
  • When asked to draw a scientist, 75% of girls in the counter-stereotype watching condition drew a woman, which was significantly more than girls in the control condition (65%) and girls in the stereotype condition (30%).
  • Girls in the counter-stereotype condition did not significantly differ from girls in the control condition by any of the measures tested in the study.

Stereotypical depictions of women and girls in the media have a strong impact on them by reinforcing gendered STEM stereotypes among young viewers and resultantly decreasing their interest in STEM careers. In this sample, the exposure to counter-stereotypical images did not increase interest in STEM. This null result could be due to the fact that the girls were only exposed to the women in STEM clip once. The researchers suggest that there should be continuing research in this area as it may be that a longer period of exposure is necessary to change the existing long-held gender ideas that are perpetuated in society.


60 girls, aged 6 to 9 years, were recruited from five southern California parochial elementary schools. Girls were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions: a “stereotype” condition, a “counter-stereotype” condition, and a control condition. Participants in the stereotype and counter-stereotype conditions were told they were getting a sneak preview of a television show, and were asked to rate how much they liked a program based on 2-minute clips from five different television shows.

Participants in the stereotype condition were shown clips from United Kingdom and Canadian television shows featuring “stereotypical” depictions of girls (a girl meeting her fairy godmother, discussing how to impress boys, or discussing an outfit for a Valentine’s Day dance). Participants in the counter-stereotype condition were shown clips from online or cancelled shows depicting women in STEM fields. Clips depicted a female astronomer discussing asteroids, a girl building robots, and a young woman building a model rocket. Participants in the control condition did not view any videos.

All participants completed a post-treatment assessment evaluating their science and math abilities, career preferences, perceptions of scientists, and show likeability.

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