When The X-Files premiered in 1993, FBI agent and medical doctor Dana Scully was unlike any other woman on television. Scully, played by Gillian Anderson, was not just the ‘sidekick’ of Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), she was an equal – a sharp, resilient, fiercely intelligent, and working in a male-dominated field.
And now there is data to show kind of empowering representation did more than just entertain the show’s female viewers, it inspired them to pursue careers in Engineering fields at a higher rate than their peers who did not watch the show. In fact, women who watched The X-Files regularly were 50% more likely to work in STEM, and nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed who work in STEM fields said Scully served as a role model.
This phenomenon even has a name. Researchers call it “The Scully Effect.”
When Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, is asked if women who watched shows with strong female characters, like The X Files, are more likely to pursue careers in STEM: the short answer was a resounding “yes.”
“The role of media is to inspire our cultural beliefs or our societal norms, and when you look at 63% of the women who were familiar with Dana Scully said that she increased their belief in the importance of STEM, that’s really a societal norm shift,” says Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Institute.
Since The X Files, there have been several female characters in TV with STEM careers, including Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) on Black-ish, Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) on Bones, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik) on The Big Bang Theory, and Darlene Alderson (Carly Chaikin) on Mr. Robot.
And as the Geena Davis Institute’s study has shown, having that representation is a vital component in closing the gender gap in STEM.
“Characters’ images and storylines in media shape our everyday lives in very profound ways. In the case of ‘The Scully Effect,’ it shows that when, in media, we have non-traditional roles for women and girls it helps them envision these pathways for themselves,” Di Nonno says. “When you look back at the 1990s, Scully was a woman who had not yet been depicted in TV, and as a result of that influenced generations of women and girls to go into the field to science. We hope that sends a message to storytellers to tell these stories because it does have a really positive impact on our society.”
Read the full survey results here.