How Princess Leia taught me to be a Woman in STEM
Leia Organa is famous for more accomplishments that the best nerds can count.
A pop culture hero and sci-fi icon, Leia spent her entire life focused on changing the universe for the better. As women in STEM fields we have a lot in common with one of the most famous and dynamic female characters in all of Science Fiction. We can all learn from someone who is famous for leading the Rebel Alliance to victory at the same time as kissing her brother, being born an orphan, marrying a renowned criminal, and wearing a metal bikini.
Leia was a hero in my world growing up. She was intelligent, articulate, took no crap from anyone, and was always willing to roll up her sleeves and get to work. She taught me that being a woman isn’t about looking good in a bikini, it’s about leading and collaborating with those around you to create a better world.
The things that we might describe as flaws make her more human and well rounded than most female characters we see in film (I bet she even has stretch marks). To build on that, we also need to remember why she didn’t let a single one of these things limit her in any way. Leia taught me that single moments don’t define us.
It’s easy for us to make a list reasons why bias and our own personal back stories might be holding us back. We comment on how we are treated badly because we are women or what this thing or that about ourselves is limiting our growth.
Leia’s back story is a MESS. She has a mixed bag of DNA that includes familial domestic violence and mental instability alongside great intellect and proclivity for The Force. She was orphaned and separated at birth from a twin brother (whom she didn’t know existed until years later). With a back story like this Leia could have just as easily become a sulky brat like her brother, but instead she dedicated her early years to study and improving herself.
Throughout her career she tackles both physical skills and mental talents. She learned to re-program tools and machines (she encrypted R2D2 with the initial hologram in A New Hope). On top of technical prowess she handles complex challenges and setbacks with a dedication we can all learn from.
Leia teaches us that the only way to change the world is to get involved in it. Recently I read a study that dove into bias and the results came out to show that even when presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, people refused to believe the actual facts. People develop bias from what they hear and see most often portrayed. To overcome this we need to create more stories about women doing awesome stuff.
We can only change the minds of the masses about women in STEM (and everywhere else for that matter) by increasing the volume of true statements that exist. As consumers of content we need to challenge our own bias. If given the chance I am pretty sure you would be more likely to ask Chewie to make you a sandwich than General Organa…just saying.
I get it. Leia is an imaginary character. She is a part of pop culture that in most cases didn’t even pass the Bechdel test. BUT… she shows us that with effort and dedication anything is possible and that is where the future lies for women in STEM. We need to choose not to select the route society pushes us towards if it isn’t a fit and when we want to try something we need to suck it up and get trying.
What makes her an icon for the feminist movement is the fact that she didn’t give up. More importantly, she teaches us that by pushing forward and doing things that others don’t believe are possible for women, we can become the future and overcome bias.
If we as women in STEM choose to do the same we have that critical thing that Leia dedicated her life to searching for. We have Hope.
Notes: The New Yorker summarises the scientific article on bias nicely here
The Force Awakens does pass when placed against all 3 criteria of the Bechdel test.