It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. There’s often a call to arms by academics, the media, and large science-based corporations for young girls to get into science and math. However, the number of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields has levelled out over the past 10 years, as shown in the graph below.
There was a notable increase in STEM degrees received by women in the 1990s, though. While it may be a coincidence, it could likely be due to “The Scully Effect.”
The Scully Effect is named for Special Agent Dana Scully, a fictional character portrayed by Gillian Anderson in the cult sci-fi hit show “The X-Files.” Scully is now an iconic pop culture figure, but it wasn’t expected she’d be.
If you’ve ever watched “The X-Files,” you know that Scully is the logical, rational counterpart to Special Agent Fox Mulder (portrayed by David Duchovny), a true believer in the paranormal and conspiracy theorist who often lets his personal feelings cloud his objectivity as an agent. Scully is level headed, highly educated, and often speaks a soothing monotone to keep each case grounded in reality, even if Mulder is convinced otherwise.
The character of Dana Scully was really meant to be Mulder’s “sexy sidekick:” tall, blonde, and a total bombshell. In the original scripts, it’s written that, as a skeptic, Scully always walked a few steps behind Mulder when approaching subjects. And even though the show reversed gender tropes by making its female lead “the skeptic” and its male lead “the believer,” it didn’t completely subvert gender roles. Scully didn’t become the iconic character she is before producers cast Gillian Anderson, who decided that Scully would walk next to Mulder, not behind him, and made it so that Scully was never afraid of being the smartest person in the room.
The groundbreaking element of “The X-Files”--and the character that Scully became after Anderson was cast--was the visibility it gave to women in science. Scully is a medical doctor who was recruited by the FBI while finishing her residency as a forensic pathologist. She has an undergraduate degree in physics. She can provide a scientific explanation to all of Mulder’s supernatural theories (though she can never completely refute them). She knows her way around a gun. In one word, she’s a badass. And a female character like her hadn’t been on mainstream American TV before.
Scully directly influenced many young women to pursue careers in STEM and law enforcement, which could account for the increase in women receiving bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields in the 1990s. At a “X-Files” panel at San Diego Comic Con in 2013, a woman who had recently received her PhD in physics rose to thank Anderson for her portrayal of Scully and for influencing her to go into science. When asked if she was aware of the Scully Effect, Anderson responded by saying, “It was a surprise to me, when I was told that. We got a lot of letters all the time, and I was told quite frequently by girls who were going into the medical world or the science world or the FBI world or other girls that I reigned, that they were pursuing those pursuits because of the character of Scully. And I said, ‘Yay!’” Anne Simon, professor of biology at the University of Maryland at College Park has recalled, “I asked my Intro Bio class back then how many of them were influenced by the character of Scully on ‘The X-Files’ to go into science and half of the hands in the room went up. That's huge! That was saying that the show was really having an effect.”
While the correlation between the Scully Effect and the increase of women in science and law enforcement since the 1990s remains a subject of academic inquiry, the Scully Effect demonstrates the importance of representation in the media. When people can see themselves on the screen, it can make a lasting impact on their lives. When girls can see themselves taken seriously and succeeding in STEM fields on TV, it can encourage them to seek it out for themselves. It doesn’t stop at women in science; representation of all kinds, from racial to LGBTQ+ to disability, has a profound effect on audiences. Representation matters.
Before there was Temperance Brennan on “Bones,” Abby Sciuto on “NCIS,” Penelope Garcia on “Criminal Minds,” and Jemma Simmons on “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” there was Dana Scully. Scully, along with the fictional female scientists that have followed her, continues to influence young women to pursue their interests in science. Women can be technical analysts, biochemists with two PhDs, and forensic anthropologists--and yes, they can be FBI Special Agents with MDs.