'Scully Effect' Is Real: Study Shows 'X-Files' Inspires Women to Pursue STEM Careers
Published: Apr 18, 2018
Dana Katherine Scully holds a B.S. in physics from the University of Maryland and an M.D. from Stanford. She worked for the FBI as a forensic pathologist for more than a decade and as a surgeon at a private Catholic hospital for seven years. She is also responsible for inspiring thousands of women to pursue STEM careers.
Scully, as you may know, is not a real person but a fictional character, one played by the actor Gillian Anderson for 11 seasons on a TV series called The X-Files and in two feature films based on the show. Scully, the character, is notable for several things, not the least of which is that she was among the first female TV characters who, according to X-Files writer Shannon Hamblin, was not only intelligent, capable, and on a level playing field with her male lead but could also "kick ass."
The X-Files began airing in 1993, and after a few seasons, people began noticing a phenomenon called "The Scully Effect." The "Effect" referred to the large number of female X-Files viewers who were inspired by Scully to enter so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Anderson herself had been aware of it, acknowledging in 2013 that the show had received a lot of letters from women saying that Scully was a role model and that many female viewers told her that Scully had been the reason they pursued careers in medicine, science, and at the FBI. In addition, an adviser to the show who taught a college-level intro to biology class had noted that half the women in her class said they'd been inspired by Scully.
But all that was merely anecdotal; there was never any scientific evidence showing that the "Effect" was real. That is, until 21st Century Fox, J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media teamed up to determine "whether Scully’s character improved women’s perceptions of STEM fields, whether she inspired girls and women to go into a STEM profession, and whether female viewers see Scully as a role model."
What these organizations found was this: "Women who regularly watch The X-Files are significantly more likely to have considered going into a STEM career, majored in a STEM field in college, and worked in a STEM profession." In addition, the study found that "nearly two-thirds of women that work in STEM say Dana Scully served as their role model," and "among women who are familiar with Scully’s character, 63% say Scully increased their confidence that they could excel in a male-dominated profession."
All of which points to this: "The Scully Effect" is indeed a real thing; it exists. Of course, it also points to the great persuasive power of the media and the need for very visible role models.
To that end, here's Anderson speaking earlier this year upon receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
I had the great good fortune of landing in Chris Carter’s television universe and the shoes of Dana Katherine Scully. A woman who wasn’t just the object of a man’s desire, but a strong-willed, smart, brave woman who was career-driven and fiercely independent. The combination of Chris’ creation and whatever rookie, naïve, terrified, determined will I brought to the table manifested a young woman yet to be depicted on TV. And as the fan response would soon prove, a desperately needed role model for women of all ages, everywhere, who it turns out were simply not seeing themselves represented.
For more on "The Scully Effect," check out the brief but enlightening video below. And to inspire more women to pursue a STEM career and help close the STEM gender gap, let it be known that the truth is out there.
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