Do TV shows offer few women playing scientists and engineers because there just aren't any available to do so? Or, is it just that TV shows haven't created enough of these roles?
Those central questions, and their answers' effects on young girls, filled a fiery debate Monday night at New York's Paley Center for Media.
The panel, moderated by Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani, included Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Elizabeth Henstridge, Silicon Valley writer Carrie Kemper and Archer's Aisha Tyler.
"This is a very layered issue," said Tyler, the most vocal member of the panel. "We have to socialize girls to speak up. We have to socialize girls to be brave."
However, she elaborated, writers, producers, viewers, and everyone else involved need to stop thinking about the issue as a male versus female one.
"I don't get up in the morning and go, 'I'm female, how do I feel about that?'" Tyler said. "Just write an awesome character and then make her a woman."
A low number of women engineers and scientists isn't just a TV problem. Women make up 47 percent of the total labor force in the U.S. but are woefully underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
In February, U.S. News reported that women made up just 28 percent of the STEM workforce in 2010, according to the National Science Board’s annual “Science and Engineering Indicators” report. And that’s an increase from 21 percent in 1993.
Only 8.8 percent of electrical and electronics engineers are women and only 44.2 percent of chemists and material scientists are women, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
But female actress in STEM roles could change all that.
"In my opinion, TV is a very intimate relationship," said Henstridge, who plays Jemma Simmons, a biochemist, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. "And in that way [characters] do become an extension of your family, for better or worse. When young girls have good role models, that makes a difference."
Throughout the night, panelists often heralded Henstridge's character as a prime role model: She's smart and tough, but still human and approachable.
"We can raise a lot of issues in a metaphorical way without, you know, it being too didactic," Henstridge said of her show, which is set in a fantasy world. "It's never mentioned that we have strong women in our show in the script; we just happen to be women. And I think that's really important."
But while many heaped praise on Jemma Simmons, moderator Saujani had some real problems with Silicon Valley. In fact, she said, the show makes her "blood boil."
She grilled writer Kemper on the lack of women in significant roles on the show, saying it wouldn't be a stretch to have a female programmer. Isn't there a way, even in a funny way, of addressing the rampant gender disparity in the real Silicon Valley, she asked?
"Right now, it's not my job to push girls into tech," Kemper said, explaining that her job is to be funny. But, she stressed the importance of the conversation being had Monday night.
But before the panel began, on the event's red carpet, Kemper did advocate for solid female role models on-screen. "Just strong women in general on television are important," she said. "We are going to have an awesome female coder in the second season."
Saujani and Tyler, an avid gamer, also discussed the lack of female role models in the gaming community and in the games themselves.
"In the last three to five years, the quality of female characters in games has improved astronomically," Tyler said. "This is a money-making business and they move where the dollars are. These worlds are already there and so women should be voting with their dollars."
The best lesson of the night came from a Verizon ad that played before the panel began.
The message? Language matters. Telling your daughter her science project has gone far enough or to hand the tools over to the boys can have a damaging effect as she grows up. So many girls dream of joining STEM fields as children, just to leave those ambitions behind by the time they enter college, the panel stressed.
"Let your daughter know it's okay not to be cute all the time," Tyler said. "We have to raise girls that can give as good as they get."
Abby Rogers is a feminist who is completely content being a crazy cat lady. She reads everything, but only in real book form — no e-readers thank you very much.