Christopher Nolan Oppenheimer’s highly anticipated film, to be released July 21, 2023, depicts J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb. But while the Manhattan Project wouldn’t have been possible without the work of many expert female scientists, the only women seen in the film’s trailer are hanging out the laundry, crying or cheering on the men.
As a physics professor studying ways to support women in STEM science, technology, engineering, and math, and a film studies professor who worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, we believe the portrayal of women in the trailer you reinforce stereotypes about who can succeed in science. It also represents a larger trend of women’s contributions to science going unrecognized by the modern media.
Lise Meitner: a pioneering model in physics
The Manhattan Project would not have been possible without the work of physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission. Meitner used Einstein’s E=MC to calculate how much energy would be released by splitting uranium atoms, and it was this development that would prompt Einstein to sign a letter urging President Franklin Roosevelt to initiate the United States’ atomic research program.
Einstein called Meitner Germany’s Madame Curie, and she was part of a pantheon of physicists, from Max Planck to Niels Bohr, who nominated Meitner for a Nobel Prize 48 times during her lifetime.
Meitner has never won. Instead, the fission prize went to Otto Hahn, her male lab partner of 30 years in Berlin. Hahn received word of his appointment under house arrest in England, where he and other German scientists were being held to determine how far the Third Reich had advanced with its atomic program.
Of Jewish descent, Meitner had been forced to flee the Nazis in 1938 and refused to use this scientific discovery to develop a bomb. Rather, he spent the rest of his life working to promote nuclear disarmament and advocating for the responsible use of nuclear energy.
Meitner was not the only woman who made significant contributions during this period. But the lack of physical models like Meitner in the popular media leads to real-life consequences. Meitner doesn’t appear as a character in the film, as she wasn’t part of the Manhattan Project, but we hope the script alludes to her groundbreaking work.
Lack of representation
Only about 20% of undergraduate majors and PhDs. physics students are women. Society’s stereotypes and prejudices, expectation of brilliance, lack of role models, and cold physics culture discourage many talented students from historically marginalized backgrounds, such as women, from pursuing physics and related disciplines.
Society’s stereotypes and prejudices affect students even before they enter the classroom. A common stereotype is the idea that genius and brilliance are important factors in being successful in physics. However, genius is often associated with boys and girls from a young age tend to shy away from fields associated with innate brilliance.
Studies have found that by age 6, girls are less likely than boys to believe they are really, really smart. As these students grow up, norms in science lessons and curricula often tend not to represent the interests and values of girls. All of these stereotypes and factors can influence women’s perception of their ability to exercise.
Research shows that at the end of a year-long college physics course sequence, women with an A have the same physical self-efficacy as men with a C. A person’s physical self-efficacy is their belief in how good they are at solving physics problems and their own self-efficacy can shape their career trajectory.
Women drop out of university science and engineering studies with significantly higher grade point average than men dropouts. In some cases, women who drop out have the same GPA as men who complete those majors. Compared to men, women in physics classes feel significantly less recognized for their achievements. Recognition by others as someone who can excel in physics is the strongest predictor of a student’s physical identity, or whether they see themselves as someone who can excel in physics.
More frequent media recognition of female scientists, such as Meitner, could indirectly influence young women, who may see them as role models. This recognition alone can increase young women’s physical self-efficacy and identity.
When Meitner began her career in the early 20th century, male physicists made excuses as to why women had no place in a laboratory—their long hair could catch fire on Bunsen burners, for example. We like to believe we’ve made progress in the last century, but the underrepresentation of women in physics is still a concern.