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Captain Janeway Breaks TV Barriers and Confronts the STEM Gap 

The gender gap seen within careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) remains a large issue today. Understanding the cause for the STEM gender gap is ambiguous, as there are multiple factors that contribute to the issue. 

A lack of representation of women within STEM jobs in society is evident, culturally. This lack of representation has caused disinterest to join STEM careers by girls and women. In the past, females have not been given credit or recognition for their contributions to STEM fields. This was explicitly seen in the movie “Hidden Figures.” This movie set out to share the lives of three African American women who made major contributions to the space race within NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program. 

The STEM gender gap is an issue that has not only been seen in reality but also within the fictional setting of TV shows. In the 1950s and 1960s, television shows created the notion of the ideal American family. In this era of television, women were often portrayed as housewives. Several shows portrayed this stereotype: “Father Knows Best,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Donna Reed Show” and many more. Women were frequently seen cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. 

While this stereotype remained prominent in old television shows, the role of women began to shift drastically in the 60s and 70s when tv shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “That Girl” were released. These shows diverted from the “housewife” portrayal and focused on depicting women as independent. 

During this same time, the American science fiction media franchise  Star Trek made its debut. The original “Star Trek” TV series, which debuted in 1966, introduced William Shatner as the first captain of the franchise. Following the original series came “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine;” however, both captains in these series were male. It wasn’t until 1995 that the franchise introduced the first female captain into a “Star Trek” TV series: Captain Kathryn Janeway. Captain Janeway, portrayed by actor Kate Mulgrew, was the captain of the starship USS Voyager in the series “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Mulgrew’s role as Captain Janeway was a huge breakthrough in the portrayal of women in television because it depicted a female in a position of power and leadership. Not only was Janeway a captain, but she was also a scientist whose love for and high knowledge in STEM fields was seen throughout the series. 

The rareness of women being portrayed in roles of power was evidently disclosed in the first episode of “Star Trek: Voyager” when the writers shared an awkward encounter between Captain Janeway and another character, Ensign Harry Kim. In this scene, which was one of the first scenes of the entire series, Harry Kim addressed Captain Janeway as “sir” instead of “ma’am.” In her response, Captain Janeway said, “Ensign, despite Starfleet protocol, I don’t like being addressed as sir.” This automatic decision of Harry Kim to say “sir” demonstrated how a female being captain was new and not a norm in society. 

The roles and duties of a captain on a starship in “Star Trek” entail quite a lot. The main responsibility is to ensure the safety of his or her ship and crew. However, captains must also exhibit sophisticated diplomatic, strategic and interpersonal skills, all of which Captain Janeway demonstrated.  

Throughout the series, Captain Janeway consistently displayed her in-depth knowledge of STEM fields as she served as captain on a starship exploring an uncharted region of space (i.e., the Delta Quadrant). Janeway served as a role model to young girls, showing women were just as capable as men in pursuit of STEM fields and leadership roles. Further, she illustrated how women could do anything they set their mind to, as she worked just as hard as all the other men did to achieve her ranking as captain. By the end of the series, Captain Janeway had successfully traveled across an unfamiliar region of space, encountering several new civilizations and planets. After serving as captain, Janeway was promoted to vice admiral, further expanding her legacy. 

Captain Janeway was, and still is, a strong female role model whose legacy in the “Star Trek” franchise will continue to live on. 

Sanhita Sheth is a second-year student majoring in media production, management and technology on the media and society path and is minoring in business administration. She loves writing and math and hopes to combine her two interests in her future career. When she’s not studying, Sanhita enjoys listening to the band ABBA, playing the piano, and watching Star Trek: Voyager.