Emma Watson's recently spoken about her decision to re-shape the story of Belle, the character she plays in the 2017 remake of the classic tale Beauty and the Beast. In the original plot and featured in the popular 1991 Disney animation, the protagonist Belle was simply known to 'like books'. Watson has extended this narrative - turning our heroine into an inventor who creates a washing machine, which cleverly provides her with more time to read and learn.
It is the first time that a leading female Disney character has demonstrated any substantial engineering skills. In fact, I can't think of a single one that's ever had a background or visible interest in the subject. Instead, nearly all of Disney's heroines are Queens and Princesses with skills in sewing, singing and cooking.
It has taken all these years for someone to point out that this really isn't such a good pattern of female character development, and to suggest that it might instead be valuable to inspire the millions of young Disney fans out there with smart female leads that have more scientific skills and interests.
Disney's slow development also plays into a very real and worrying global context. We are facing a looming skills crisis. Both young men and women, but particularly women, are shying away from studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) at school and university, and this is leaving them without the skills they need. It is leaving our businesses short of much-needed talent too with 40,000 unfulfilled STEM jobs in the UK every year. With so many jobs of the future requiring tech and digital skills the problem is becoming more acute. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has identified the problem as the number one issue facing businesses in the UK.
The need for STEM role models in popular culture is more important than ever, and yet more absent than ever. It's not just Disney but across the board, the majority of mathematicians and scientists on TV and in film - whether real or fictional - are portrayed by geeks lacking social skills, often in lab coats, and almost always men. No wonder so many young people are put off.
For the last two years I've been Chair of Your Life, a campaign dedicated to addressing the STEM skills gap. We have recently hosted an initiative with the global photography company Getty, to build a new library of STEM images. The aim is to move away from photos of Bunsen burners and instead towards more contemporary portraits of STEM - things like virtual reality and artificial intelligence. We want to show young people that these subjects offer them so much more than what they are currently seeing.
We are simply not doing enough to show young people the many inspiring men and women who are right now working on projects to provide the world with cleaner energy sources, to give us healthier foods, to cure cancer, to provide those without shelter with smart homes and so much more.
Instead many of us consciously or subconsciously frame these people as academics who we can't relate to. We normalise a disregard for STEM by openly admitting to being bad at maths when we wouldn't dare mock ourselves for being illiterate. In so doing, we are turning more young people off studying the very subjects that will unlock future careers. We all have a role to play at breaking these tired stereotypes.
Far more young men than women I speak to cite digital or business entrepreneurs or sportsman as their idols, and express the desire to follow in their footsteps. Meanwhile, worrying numbers of teenage girls say they want to be celebrities and make-up artists, based on the popularity of reality TV and social media.
But positive role models can work when it comes to influencing choices. Recent research that we conducted shows that more young women are now considering careers in politics thanks to the heightened visibility of political role models both real (Merkel, May, Michelle Obama) and fictional (Birgitte Nyborg in Borgen, Selina Meyer in Veep and Olivia Pope in Scandal).
I believe that the time is now for us to act to elevate the status of leading STEM role models across the board. Emma Watson's Belle is a good start, but we need a lot more prominent STEM heroines to inspire the next generation.Suggest a correction