The Scully Effect, or, From Representation to Realisation: the role media can have in encouraging women into STEM fields

By day a third year medical student, by night also a third year medical student, Grace is usually to be found behind a sewing machine under a mountain of half-sewn quilt. Failing that, she can be reached by following the trail of half-formed to do lists and half-finished books.

“I was recruited out of medical school. My parents still think it was an act of rebellion, but I saw the FBI as a place where I could distinguish myself.”

It was with these words, on the 10th of September 1993, that Special Agent Dana Scully walked onto the screens of The X-Files viewers around the world. The effect that her character would have on the numbers of women in STEM fields is immense. As an FBI agent who majored in physics, earned a medical degree, and would go on to work as a surgeon, Scully was bright and brilliant, smart and sceptical: a main character in her own right at a time where female scientists were not commonly seen, let alone as main characters, on prime-time TV. Not only that, but Scully (played by Gillian Anderson in a performance that earned her 59 award nominations, including 14 wins) was “the sceptic”, the scientific and hyper-rational half of an FBI investigative partnership, and it was her male colleague Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) who was “the believer”, a quirky, sometimes erratic conspiracy theorist obsessed with finding ‘the truth’ of what was out there. 

Coming along in the 1990s (the show rising to prominence at around the same time as the third wave feminist movement) Scully was a sharp departure from the gendered stereotype of a scientist. Logical and brave, she consistently defied the ‘damsel in distress’ mould by saving the day, both with her wits and scientific know-how and, quite regularly, coming in all guns blazing and leading a team of FBI backup. She was also, with her medical training, usually the most forensically qualified agent present in any investigation, and was frequently seen, in gory detail, conducting autopsies and scientific analysis of evidence the two had found.

The character of Scully and her depiction of a high-achieving woman in STEM would go on to inspire and pave the way for countless other brilliant and brainy women who would appear on screens for years after her. Bones’ Dr Temperance “Bones” Brennan, The Fall’s DSI Stella Gibson (another Anderson appearance), and Marvel’s eponymous Agent Carter, among many, many others, have all shown, over the last thirty years, that there is a large and still growing place for women in STEM in the public eye. These characters portrayed high achieving women who were confident in their skills, enjoyed their work, and had fulfilling lives and careers, showing a generation of women that they could do the same. Indeed, in the years during and after the X-Files’ appearance on screen, there was a perceptible increase in the number of women pursuing postgraduate degrees and careers in STEM fields, medicine, and law enforcement, a phenomenon that became known as “The Scully Effect”.

At the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, at the X-Files reunion panel, a woman who had recently earned a PhD in Physics stood up and explained that she had been heavily inspired to major in Physics by the character of Agent Dana Scully. In response, Gillian Anderson noted that she had long been aware of “The Scully Effect”, stating “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 worlds that I reigned, that they were pursuing those pursuits because of the character of Scully. And I said, ‘Yay!’”

Despite being theorised for over two decades, the Scully Effect was first proved in 2018 by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, working with 20th Century Fox and J. Walter Thompson Intelligence. Through an opt-in online survey with a sample of 2,021 female participants, they found that nearly two thirds (63%) of women surveyed who were familiar with the character of Agent Scully said that she had increased their belief in the importance of STEM, with 50% saying she had increased their interest in STEM fields.

As well, 56% of the women surveyed who watched The X-Files strongly believed that young women should be encouraged to study STEM compared to only 47% of non/light viewers, and this group were also more likely than non-viewers to strongly agree with the statement “I would encourage my daughter/granddaughter to enter a STEM field” (53% compared to 41%). Overall, of the women sampled, medium/heavy viewers of the show were 43% more likely to have considered working in a STEM field, 27% more likely to have studied a STEM degree, and 50% more likely to have worked in a STEM field than non/light viewers.

Two months ago I started watching The X Files seriously from start to finish for the first time. I’m now two and a half seasons in and already “Agent Scully” is feeling more and more like a career goal; with a third of a medical degree under my belt, my friends sometimes joke that it’s not yet even impossible. While the chronology of my watching the show rules out The Scully Effect in its literal meaning in my case, I have no doubt that I, along with many of my classmates, was in part inspired into pursuing medicine by the strong and inspiring women, real and fictional, contemporary and historical, I saw working and thriving in the field.

There are of course many reasons for the present and historical differences in gender representation in STEM fields, ranging from the obvious (the gender wage gap, the fact that women were routinely banned outright from universities and academies of science until the early 20th century) to the more insidious (stereotypes attached to occupations that are still rampant in our society and education systems, cultures of bullying and sexual harassment that conspire to alienate women who dare enter). I am not saying that increased portrayals of high achieving women in the media is the way to fix all of these, nor am I arguing that it is the only way to fix any of these. However, not only does increased representation not hurt, it can, and does, actively help.


The X-Files, created by Chris Carter, Ten Thirteen Productions and 20th Century Fox Television

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