Worldwide, women only hold 24% of jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math (STEM) even though they make up 46% of the total workforce.
Less young women participate in STEM A-level exams than young men, even though they regularly score higher than their male counterparts. Few young women participate in mathletics, quiz bowl, or robotics club even though it is an asset on university applications.
Most young girls "lose interest" in STEM subjects during the transition from middle to upper school, and being both an educator at a middle school and a shark scientist, I can tell you that these events are related.
The currency of being cool is a huge and highly valuable aspect to upper school life. Unfortunately for young girls, intelligence isn't regarded highly for women. In fact, a recent study published by the Warsaw School of Economics found that intelligence was a major turn-off for men on speed-dates, unless the woman was beautiful enough to compensate for her intellect. Yes, you read that correctly.
We live in a world where individuals from either sex can name more Kardashians than female biologists, so can we really be surprised that young girls drop STEM subjects at the same time when "being cool" becomes as critical as oxygen?
This is why I am so pleased that this year's Shark Week line-up features more female scientists than ever before, including the likes of ninja-shark discoverer Vicky Vásquez on the documentary Alien Sharks and Ornella Weideli on Shark Storm.
Sharks have an abundance of coolness currency and when you study sharks, you also study physics, chemistry, and ecology to name a few. You may not jump out of your seat to learn more about conductivity, but you may be interested in how some shark trackers function while attached to great white sharks (spoiler alert: breaks in tag conductivity transmit satellite signals).
You may not get a classroom of Year 8 students to study classification and nomenclature gladly, but you will run out of paper when you task them to build their own sharks and organise their new shark species into groups.
Therefore, highlighting the work of female shark researchers during the most-watched week of scientific documentaries does loads of good to make science (and, indeed, intelligence) cool for girls.
While representation matters, it is not the only way to tackle to coolness drought in STEM studies. Science-focused socially active groups like The Gills Club are desperately important. These groups change the image of science, and suddenly STEM becomes something that gives you the opportunity to go shark spotting, chat with badass scientists, and make equally badass STEM-loving friends.
This is also why effective outreach needs to be tangible and not only exist on social media. An inspirational Facebook post is great, but it won't counter-act the awkwardness of upper school STEM courses – tagging sharks on the weekend will.
While the culture around attractive female intelligence is progressing in many countries, some countries are taking... YUGE... steps backward. In the meantime, we need to show girls how intelligence is cool, a gift, and not something to compromise. Shark Week's move to finally feature some of the many incredible female shark scientists is a great step forward, and we should be giving them high-fins!
Michelle Jewell is a scientific communicator and educator who completed her Master's dissertation on great white shark behaviour at the University of Cape Town. She is now the Social Media Coordinator for The Gills Club – an Atlantic White Shark Conservancy education initiative that connects young girls interested in STEM with the science and scientists behind shark research. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.