Scientists and mathematicians aren’t all white men—but you wouldn’t know that from the movies

What do you see when you picture a scientist?

For most people—myself included—the default answer is probably a white man in a lab coat, hunched over a microscope. The same image arises for the archetypical computer programmer (a white man in a hoodie, hunched over a computer) and mathematician (a white man in a threadbare cardigan, hunched over a pile of composition books).

In other words, not only do we tend to assume that all scientists, technologists, and mathematicians have poor posture—our go-to image of STEM professionals is typically white and male. Ada Lovelace Day is the perfect opportunity to change this picture.

Ada Lovelace is widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. A close friend of 19th-century mathematician Charles Babbage, in 1842 she published the first programs for his proposed analytical engine—a machine that was never built but bore the essential traits of a computer. Nearly a century later, her notes helped inspire Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computers.

Lovelace was clearly a trailblazer. But where is her biopic?

Rather than yet another film about Steve Jobs, we need popular representations of women like Patricia Bath, who became the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical invention by developing a laser device to remove cataracts. The story of astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, is also blockbuster-ready.

When we fail to tell stories about women in science and math, we reinforce the impression that few women have patented inventions, derived important equations or otherwise contributed to scientific discoveries. This dearth of visible role models can discourage young women from pursuing careers in STEM. It also bolsters ignorant claims that women simply lack interest in these subjects—or that they’re incapable of the intellectual rigor required by such fields.

But as Gloria Steinem once said, “women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” In order to change public perceptions about gender and STEM, we have to put a spotlight on the contributions of women past and present.

To that end, the TED Fellows program recently published a portrait of 12 women scientists conducting groundbreaking research in subjects ranging from astrophysics to archaeology and genetics. The photograph of a dozen leading women in science gathered together obliterates the white-man-in-a-lab-coat stereotype better than any image I can recall.

What stuck with me even more than the striking image was this accompanying quote from one of the scientists:

“This week, a cab driver asked me, ‘What do men say when you tell them you’re a scientist? Because you don’t look like a scientist,’” marine biologist Kristen Marhaver says. “In this picture, I see a twinkle in each of our eyes, saying, ‘No, that’s the thing, sir. I do look like a scientist.’”

Equally powerful was the #ILookLikeAnEngineer hashtag that spread through Twitter earlier this year after an engineer participated in her startup’s recruiting campaign and received a torrent of skeptical comments regarding her appearance.

These efforts expose the problem with assuming that an entire category of professionals should look one particular way—whether defined by gender, ethnicity, age, body shape, style of dress or any other category. A jockey looks nothing like a linebacker, yet both are athletes. Lupita Nyong’o bears little resemblance to Robert De Niro, but both are Oscar-caliber actors. The same logic applies to people in STEM.

Chances are the next big breakthroughs in science, technology, engineering and math will come from people who look less like Albert Einstein and more like “first lady of physics” Chien-Shiung Wu or computer scientist Grace Hopper. By destroying stereotypes about what kind of person “belongs” in STEM, we can encourage new generations of women to work toward life-changing innovations.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search