THE BLOG
11/18/2014 07:19 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Sir Isaac Newton and the Inadvertent Feminist

I have a confession to make: I am an inadvertent feminist.

When I set out to write my screenplay Newton's Laws of Emotion -- a romantic-comedy take on Sir Isaac Newton's life -- I knew I had an opportunity to portray science differently from the waste of time many of us felt when we were in high school. (Confession no. 2: I never felt that way; I was a science geek and still am.) With my Newton script, I wanted to show that physics -- and the dreaded calculus -- could be fun, cool, and even sexy. And to match intellect and wits with Sir Isaac, the father of modern physics, I needed a romantic interest to stand toe-to-toe with him, a woman who was his intellectual equal. Thus Sophia was born. And with that I had the intimidating responsibility of creating a role model for the many girls out there who want to grow up to become scientists.

Sophia is loosely based on the historical figure Sophia Charlotte, the daughter of a duke and the future queen of Prussia. She was a student of German scientist and philosopher (and co-discoverer of calculus) Gottfried Leibniz. She was also a patron of music and science and was known as a "philosopher queen." For my fictionalized Sophia, I wanted to imbue her with the experiences of the female scientists who lived during her time, when women were denied the educational opportunities available to men. Duchess Margaret Cavendish of England, for example, published work that openly challenged the scientific philosophies of the day and was the first woman ever to be invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. Her mere appearance proved so scandalous that afterwards England's brotherhood of scientists placed a long-standing ban on women. Similarly, in Prussia, Maria Winkelmann was denied membership to the Berlin Academy of Science because of her gender, despite her many contributions to astronomy, including her discovery of a comet -- an accomplishment for which her husband took credit. Like Winkelmann, the Sophia in my script is stripped of credit for a discovery and is subsequently rejected by the Berlin Academy. Afterwards, however, she decides to try her luck at the Royal Society, but this time disguised as a man. Unfortunately -- SPOILER ALERT! -- the Royal Society will not induct their first female members until 1945 -- over 250 years after my script ends!

In Newton, Sophia is repeatedly told, "The world of science is a world of men." Regrettably that still seems to be the case today. According to the Royal Society website, women only make up 6 percent of its membership. And last year only two out of its 43 University Research Fellowships were awarded to women. It's a statistic that Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, admits "sends out a bad message to young female scientists." On top of that, a new study found that 70 percent of female scientists surveyed experienced sexual harassment in the field. Kate Clancy, the lead author of the study and a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, worried that sexual harassment may be "one mechanism driving women from science."

So what do we do to fix this? The White House recently launched the National Science Foundation Career-Life Balance Initiative in an effort to curtail the dropout rate of women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama, this initiative allows researchers -- male and female -- to "delay or suspend their grants for up to one year in order to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations." While this is a step in the right direction, a change in policy can only go so far. It doesn't get to the heart of the problem. What is needed is a change in attitude. Dame Athene Donald, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, believes it starts with the toys parents buy their children. In an interview on BBC Radio's The Life Scientific, Donald said, "A parent may very well not think to give a girl [an Erector] set, say, and so they don't develop those skills or that kind of interest [in science]." At an early age, then, children learn the stereotypes of what toys are suitable for boys and what toys are suitable for girls, and when they grow up to choose their career tracks, they limit their choices to what is suitable to their gender. Of course, it's not as simple as buying the right toys for children. It's about changing our attitudes on gender. Girls should not feel that math and science are suitable only for boys. Female scientists should not feel marginalized or harassed at work because of their gender. Women should not be unduly penalized in their careers for taking time off to care for newborns. As Emma Watson put it in her speech to the UN in September, "It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals." It won't be a quick or easy road to get there. Miss Watson points out that we need more gender-equality ambassadors and inadvertent feminists, especially men (like Isaac Newton in my script), to change the world. And if and when we do, I think we'll see many more girls and women aspiring to be scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Since Miss Watson's speech, I've embraced her idea of the "inadvertent feminist" (even though at heart -- and this is confession no. 3 -- I'm just a plain old feminist). When I wrote Newton's Laws of Emotion, I didn't set out to create Sophia as a role model for girls. But now that I have, I dearly hope that one day if this movie ever makes it to the big screen, a young girl will point at Sophia and say, "I want to be like her."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to Athene Donald as Athene Arnold. It has been updated accordingly. We regret the error.

Eugene Ramos is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded filmmaker. From Nov. 14 to Nov. 16, the Sloan Foundation and Film Independent hosted the 2014 Sloan Film Summit at L.A. Live in Los Angeles. The Summit celebrates the thriving nationwide Sloan film program, bringing together 150 screenwriters, directors and producers, as well as representatives from leading film schools and film organizations, who work to bridge the gap between science and popular culture. Learn more at SloanSummit2014.org.