01/08/2016 12:11 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2017

STEM Wars: Can the Force Awaken Change for More Women in Science?


It took less than a month for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to smash through the record books. The latest edition of the beloved epic series surpassed the $1.56 billion earnings mark and became the top-grossing film in North America.

With all eyes on when (not if) the film will take over the No. 1 spot in global earnings, it's the pioneering content of this latest edition of the decades-old saga that intrigues me most.

Los Angeles Times film writer Rebecca Keegan captured the sentiment with a short but telling tweet:

"Among its many wonderful qualities, STAR WARS: The FORCE AWAKENS passes the Bechdel test."

The Bechdel test is a simple benchmark about the depiction of women characters in films and other fictional works. The criterion is simple: Are at least two women characters featured who talk to each other about something other than a man?

The concept is actually inspired by an approach to exploring literature introduced by pioneering author Virginia Woolf. Woolf described the prevalence of the concept in the writings of her time.

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) is a respected general in the Resistance, and the new star of the franchise, Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), is a scrappy, resourceful, young woman warrior.

What's crucial about this blockbuster passing the Bechdel test is the power it holds to influence a whole new generation of pop culture consumers on gender representations. This film gives women -- and men -- an opportunity to see women as adventurers and leaders in the infinite world of science fiction.

Imagery and role models are so important. I heard this point made over and over at a recent gathering of women scientists and state and national politicians who gathered on our campus to talk about how to get more girls interested in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) and to sustain their engagement over time. As you may know, STEM is one of the fastest growing fields in our economy, commanding 33 percent more salary than non-STEM jobs, yet has a pitiful 26 percent representation of women.

Besides demonstrating that girls can have fun and make a difference in the world, seeing women role models -- including those in popular culture -- is among the most important ways to spark interest for girls in underrepresented fields, such as STEM.

Several African-American scientists at the meeting specifically mentioned being inspired by Uhura, the diligent communications officer on the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek saga. Masterly played by actress Nichelle Nichols, Nyota Uhura was one of the first black characters in a prominent role on an American TV series.

Hollywood cannot solve the gender gap issue in STEM alone. There is much work to be done to boost science and math curricula in public schools in concert with enhanced training of elementary, middle, and high school teachers to support all students.

Closing the gender gap in STEM, and ultimately the gender pay gap in order to tap 100 percent of the talent pool in the U.S. workforce, will require a full-scale effort involving all factions of society led by women and men.

So as the saying goes, "may the force be with us" as we continue to break down barriers and to even the playing field for all.