YA Female Protagonists in STEM

We need more female protagonists in STEM fields, especially in YA. For those of you who don’t know, STEM covers science, technology, engineering, and math. The reason STEM needs to be explored more in YA fiction is to encourage young women to explore those fields in real life more.

Hold the eye rolls.

I get it. I know that there are real-life role models to look up to in those fields already. But a lot of younger people—myself included—enjoy looking up to fictional role models, too. When I was a kid, fictional characters strangely felt more attainable, more inspirational, more…like me.

Sometimes, it’s easier for a fourteen-year-old to look up to a fourteen-year-old scientist rather than Marie Curie. (And more fun.) This is why I’m advocating for a bigger emphasis on STEM in YA fiction, but there’s another, more personal reason as well.

Oh, hey there, science.

Here’s the deal. I hated science in school. Loathed it. Biology was the hardest course for me in high school and college. I hated biology…but I loved chemistry. I also love math. I also love technology and engineering. But as a young girl, I hit a couple roadblocks while studying it.

In school, for instance, I signed up for Tech 101 instead of Home Ec. I was immediately approached by an office clerk who thought I made a mistake. On top of that, one of my teachers actually had to the gall to “make sure” I wanted to take Tech 101 instead of Home Ec since I didn’t have a mother at home. If that wasn’t discouraging enough, I came second place in a bridge building competition later that semester…only for the teacher to pull me aside and tell me I should’ve won. (The winner, it turned out, had cheated. But did the school correct it? No. I just got a secret pat on my back.) If I could tell you what it felt like to then see that boy congratulated, to hear my fellow classmates say “You almost lost to a girl, dude” like that was the worst thing ever, I would. But I still don’t have words for it.

STEM didn’t exactly welcome me.

I recall these moments in my life where I loved science, technology, engineering, and math—and I was good at it, too—but numerous adults in my life discouraged it anyway. Granted, I’m not saying I would’ve chased an engineering degree if these things hadn’t happened. In fact, I’m pretty sure I would’ve chased English no matter what. Why? Because my university asked me to become a math major after I scored 100% on one of their harder exams…and I still turned it down.

Now I’m an author…and authors are engineers of stories. So, I set out to write a book where my protagonist is involved with science.

Kalina came to me that night. She’s sixteen, a botanist, and she invents machines that help water her plants when she’s too busy studying them. Botany takes on a huge role in my book. So much so that one of my critique partners asked an interesting question: How are you going to get readers to sympathize with plants instead of people?

Well…I’m not.

I’m not asking readers to sympathize with plants over people. I’m asking readers to see how interesting plants can be. To see an awesome, smart, and talented young woman studying her scientific passion. To open their minds to science.

Kalina opened my mind, and I love everything she taught me. Granted, I still can’t grow a flower to save my life (especially with cats in the house), but I have a deeper appreciation for botany. Above all, I have a deeper appreciation for science.

YA readers deserve more of that, too.


18 thoughts on “YA Female Protagonists in STEM

  1. But it has to be natural is the problem. I like the women in STEM and fiction women in STEM, but it has to be natural. It has to be wholly the characters choice. Otherwise it’s just a lesson.

  2. (Might be a little Devil’s advocate)

    Fantasy doesn’t really open up for STEM, but I’m a little lost on the YA STEM hero thing. Most protagonists in this genre are high school age. I can understand having heroes showing an interest and studying. Yet, whenever I see a ‘scientist’ hero in YA they seem to be child prodigies and already well into their fields. Can’t this dissuade kids into thinking they have to be like that to get there?

      1. I guess I’m just wondering if always having the prodigies has a downside. As you pointed out, it’s fairly easy to dissuade a person from something that looks challenging. Having these fictional characters always be uniquely gifted can make it seem like you either have it or you don’t. Maybe this is more of a guy thing though. People were always really quick to tell me why I couldn’t be a certain thing, but my sister (a scientist) got supported for everything. Want to say she does cancer research, but she’s jumped labs a few times and isn’t very good at talking without the technical terms.

      2. I agree. Just having a lot of trouble thinking of any YA character who is involved in STEM and not built up as a prodigy. Keep in mind that I tend to think of comic characters in this field since the novels I read were either fantasy or Star Trek. Comics love the tech prodigy like Stark, Parker, Beast, Riri Williams (new 15-year-old hero), etc. For fantasy, the equivalent is the magic prodigy that has a natural gift. I wonder why the prodigy shows up so often for STEM.

        By the way, I like the botany angle. You don’t see that one very often.

      3. Just another angle that needs help in YA. 🙂 Not everyone has to be a genius. (And the genius trope is a popular one.) Great addition to bring up! And yeah, I had a total blast learning about botany. I hope I get to continue the story one of these days.

      4. Hope you get back to the story too. I think the genius trope gets used a lot because it steps around the need for training. ‘They can do it because they’re a natural.’ Many authors also make it that geniuses rarely make mistakes, so you get that ‘perfect’ hero. Personally, I find the genius characters better as supporting cast.

    1. I think the child prodigy is a valid point about that it could discourage, but I don’t think that happens very often. I don’t think that prodigy status makes a character inherently uninspiring or unlikeable. I agree with Shannon that those characters encourage the intended audience to try something new.

  3. I agree whole-heartedly. I have started to find some YA nonfiction that fits the bill (Girl Code by Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser, for example), but I wish there was more YA and MG that had women in STEM. I’ve been annoyed that most of the female YA protagonists only seem to go for art. It doesn’t ruin the book, but I too would like to see the female protagonist who likes building robots, or studying plants, or who just discovered an interest in calculus. Actually, I don’t recall that much YA fiction where the girls were looking ahead to college, but most of my experience with YA fiction is in fantasy and sci-fi where that concern can be quickly lost.

    1. Right?! I’m amazed that YA has such a focus on art. And I love art, don’t get me wrong, but STEM is majorly lacking. The main ones I can think about off the top of my head are Stitching Snow by RC Lewis and The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. I like that you brought up the college aspect, too. The only YA SFF books that I can think of that brought up college tend to be urban fantasy books where the girls quit school once they discover they are demon hunters. And while I get the lack of time for school, it’d be nice to see characters continue with their education in some way. Doesn’t have to be college – could be a hobby or technical school or anything, really. Their lives do not have to revolve solely around demon hunting and a love interest. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  4. You are right, there NEED to be more girls in that. I know all those stories – I was the only girl in electronic engineering, my university major. I am talking about 4 years with 99 boys and me. Well, diminishing numbers of boys cause they dropped out. I didn’t.
    Not an engineer anymore, but maybe I would have stayed working in the field if it was so… dull to be a woman in it.
    And at least you could choose technology over home EC. Back where I was schooled, there was no such choice. If you’re a girl, you’re stuck with home EC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s