Chatterbox: Calling All Fictional Ladies in STEM

June 29, 2016 by Jenna | Chatterbox, Features


I was first inspired to do this discussion post a few months ago when I read Love, Lies and Spies, which is marketed as a 19th century romance with a young female scientist who just wants to publish and disseminate her research rather than get married. Now, if you’ve read my review you’ll know that what I was most disappointed with was the fact that there was hardly any science in the book. And this led me to wonder where are all the fictional ladies in STEM (aka the most badass of all fictional ladies)?

Here’s a little bit about me (in case you didn’t already know): I graduated after four years of study with a Bachelor of Psychology, taking mainly psychology and statistics courses. I spent my summer and winter breaks of my undergraduate life doing research assistant work in different psychology research labs. Upon graduating, I jumped straight into doing a PhD in psychology and now my life revolves around designing and programming experiments, collecting data, statistical analyses and writing everything up for publication. In other words, my life is science. So where are the ladies in fiction whose lives are science too?

I can think of a handful of books where the female protagonist is interested in STEM disciplines (I’ll include a list at the end of this post) but a lot more books where the characters are interested in literature and the arts. Which is fine, I mean Cath from Fangirl and Allyson from Just One Day are two of my favourite female characters but I’d like to see a little bit more science represented in YA. I’d like to be able to fall in love with characters who love science as much as I do and people who live and breathe science.

At the same time, I can kind of see why authors are hesitant to write about science. I mean, we’ve always been told to write about what we know right? And there’s honestly nothing worse than reading a novel about science and not understanding anything because it’s too technical. I’m looking at you, The Square Root of Summer. It’s also not so great when authors just get their facts wrong *ahem The Love That Split the World* and people who are knowledgable in the area are thinking “What the heck are you talking about?”. I can honestly say that most of the YA novels with STEM-related themes that I’ve read haven’t been that successful.

But I don’t think that we need novels with super technical science or mathematical terms and characters who only speak in science. I think we just need characters who are interested in and passionate about science so that young readers or even older readers like myself can relate to those characters and what they want to do in life. In the current world right now where we’re trying to celebrate women in STEM, I think the world needs more YA novels about different characters who want to do different things, including science.

Okay enough chatter. Here are some books that I’ve read that have female characters who are interested in science and related disciplines (reviews are linked).

Those are all of the books that I’ve read that have female STEM characters. If you have any recommendations, let me know in the comments because I would love to check them out too! Also, what are your thoughts on more badass STEM ladies in YA fiction?

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Jenna is an Aussie blogger and reader who loves to indulge in great books and great food. She is a doctor (of philosophy) and can usually be found fangirling about something, devouring delicious food, or taking a nap. You can find her on Twitter @readwithjenna and on Instagram @readingwithjenna.

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39 responses to “Chatterbox: Calling All Fictional Ladies in STEM

  1. The lack of lady scientists rather aggravating. There really are very few, and it's even less common for it to truly play a role in their character- which was something that really frustrated me about Love, Lies, and Spies.

    One of the main characters of Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel, Kate, becomes fairly devoted to zoology (they almost die a couple times because of it). The same author's next book featues, among other characters, a lady paleontologist… I'm really hoping I'll love it, if for no other reason than how few women in science are featured in YA.

    It is kind of sad that those are the books I can think of off the top of my head that you haven't already listed. Hopefully there will be more in future!
    My recent post Review: Paper and Fire

    • I've always wanted to read a Kenneth Oppel book so I'll definitely put him higher on my list of authors to check out! I've been seeing The Nest in my bookstore a lot and I've heard some pretty good things about it around the community!

  2. Science-y books FTW. I've noticed in a few recent YAs I've read a lot of the girl MCs (not a bad thing!) are total vintage book fanatics/work in bookstores/are also bloggers. Tonight The Street Are Ours & The Square Root of Summer follow this route. I mean, I love being able to relate, but choose a different hobby, authors. Cooking, swimming, fencing. Dang.

    Thanks for the recs!! The Next Together has been on my wishlist for a decade now. haha.

    • I totally agree! Would personally love to see someone interested in fencing! That would just be the most awesome thing. Diversity in interests are hobbies are so important!

  3. THIS IS SO TRUE. And I think part of it stems (ha) from the fact that writers don't really have an interest in those things. But it's so important and I think the Colours of Madeleine series does a really good job of it. Same with The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand, btw.

    • DAMN I totally don't remember The Last Time We Say Goodbye having science but would have totally included it because it was one of my favourites of last year! I honestly just remember it being super emotional and super good. Will have to reread it at some point!

    • Definitely let me know if you remember them! Keen to read more books with STEM characters! And yes, I often feel like characters in YA are very one dimensional. They're all just interested in one thing and while I may have one main hobby (reading, buying, sniffing books), there are other things I do too.

  4. Jenna I hope to be you in the future. Just letting you know you were my role model (my blogger role model I guess haha).

    I would like to read more about science, or more about characters who love science. But I think you're right that sometimes it can be pretty inaccurate. Like whenever I read about the brain, I often find myself thinking "that's NOT HOW IT WORKS". Sure, it's fiction, I get it, but it still nags at me hahaha.

    Awesome post Jenna! I think YA really needs characters that love math or science or programming, especially girl characters!
    My recent post An Innocent Life #12: And It's July! Wow!

    • You flatter me too much.. I'm so excited about you embarking on your grad school journey though! Good luck with everything and if you need a shoulder to cry on, I will be here!

      OMG isn't it the absolute WORST when you read things that are inaccurate and you're pretty much just bashing your head against the book and thinking "WHYYYYYYY??!!!"

  5. Rachel Lightwood

    I definitely agree with this! Emmmabooks (a BookTuber) just posted a fabulous discussion about how we need our YA protagonist to have more diverse hobbies (not just reading, writing and other arts). It's true that not a lot of protagonists have STEM hobbies/interests. Maybe it is simply because a lot of authors may be unfamiliar with the subject matter? Either way, more scientists/mathematicians etc. would be nice!

    I did actually just read a "fantasy" book that was perfect for this. It was almost entirely about a girl who starts her own mechanical business to get away from her abusive ste-family. You may have read it – Mechanica by Betsey Cornwall? If not, I'd recommend it!

    • Ooh I'll have to go find that video and watch that discussion! Definitely keen to see what other people have to say about diversity in interests. And omg I hadn't even heard of Mechanica but it sounds WONDERFUL. Must have now!

  6. In that case I think you'll really like Falling into Place! There's quite a heavy physics element in there but it's done really well. Also I absolutely loved the science in Parasite because the main character is a scientist but somehow I can't see you picking that up lol.

    • Ooh can't wait to read Falling into Place now that I know there's some science in it! Thanks for sending it to me! And yeah…. I will never ever read Parasite HAHA

  7. Wow, this is actually a really great point! I was thinking about a few of my favorite books where I couldn't exactly explain why I liked them (such as Fangirl, Illuminae) and realized it was because of that aspect. Interesting! It's nice to have books that I can easily relate to (I was originally a bio major, now a software engineering major) and would definitely like to see more of this in YA.
    My recent post Meet the Newbies: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

    • I've realised through seeing comments on this post that there are actually a lot of STEM bloggers! There should definitely be more characters who we can relate to in terms of career goals or even just special skills like Kady and her programming!

  8. STEM girl right here!
    I so agree with you. They are really rare. And I wish they weren't because we need to show teenagers that science is cool so that we can get more into STEM.
    The only book I could think about is that girl from Jasmine Warga's series. I think the MC from This Is Brain on Boys is studying science too, but I DNFed that one. Ooh also Kelly Oram's Science Squad series has characters has girls interested in science.
    I want to know more about The Love That Split the World and how it got it wrong.
    In any case, I agree that we seriously need more STEM-interested girls!
    My recent post Books That Rocked Our World in 2016

    • STEM girls unite! I will forever be advocating for more women in STEM! I felt like when I was in high school, I was almost discouraged from going into science (I went to an all-girls high school btw). It was always law or business and I always felt so lost because I had no interest in those disciplines! Luckily I always had psychology in mind as a career and when I finally got to university, I felt so much more at home and with like-minded people.

      Science Squad sounds AMAZING! Definitely sounds super sciency and I'll definitely check it out! Ugh my problem with TLTSTW was that there was lots of pseudoscience and pseudopsychology that was passed off as proper empirical science. And it overall just came across as very inaccurate and unrealistic. Also the 'psychologist' in the book was very unprofessional and given the role of "Head of Psychology"… even though her specialty was in hocus pocus.

  9. corrallingbooks

    Jenna, what an awesome topic! I actually recently bought Love Lies and Spies – super happy to know that it's done ladies in STEM right! 🙂
    I'm currently doing a Bachelor of Science in uni right now – and you're right, it's a bit sad when STEM isn't done well in YA! It's a different kind of diversity, and I totally understand why some authors avert away from science, after you've explained it. Hopefully we get to see more books with science in it though! :/
    My recent post 27 Days to Midnight by Kristine Kruppa

    • I actually found Love, Lies and Spies to be pretty meh. There wasn't much science in it and I was kind of disappointed since the whole thing was marketed as kind of 'science girl wants to do science rather than marry'. But at least the interest is there! Good luck with the BSc! Being a STEM girl is really like no other experience I think 😀

  10. This is such a great post, and SO true! And I think your reasons are pretty accurate too. Hopefully, there will be a really amazing STEM person who also happens to love writing to make the two work well together. This is just ME, personally, but I know there would be no way I could do a science-oriented female character (or male character, for that matter!) justice, because I would be bored of my own research 😉 My mind never really got along with science that well- and I imagine when writers don't include a lot of science, their reasons could be similar! (And see, I never even noticed in TLTSTW because… I didn't know science-y stuff!)

    Illuminae was definitely one I was thinking of. And I know it isn't a book, but Raven on The 100 is the best tech person AND engineer literally on the planet. OH! I have one! In Firsts, Mercedes was really into (and good at!) Chemistry, right? But yeah, it should NOT have taken me 20 minutes to come up with ONE female character who was into science. So pretty much, and especially after searching for it myself, I agree with you completely!
    My recent post Review: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

    • I definitely think that it's the being unfamiliar with science that deters authors from incorporating science. I totally understand because I would never write about something that I didn't know much about (not that I'm much of a writer). I would just like to see more characters who want to be scientists, even if the book doesn't actually incorporate any scientific concepts. That way, at least the career goal is represented.

      Thanks for the recs! I haven't watched any of The 100 but I hope to when I get the chance. Raven sounds super kickass and I love that name 😀 I've been meaning to check out Firsts as well so maybe I'll give that one a go soon too.

  11. Ooh, great post Jenna! I'm super interested in STEM. I love all things Science, but I'm not the best with it, haha. I am really into Web Design and Programming though so Tech is super important to me. I'd love to see more characters who are into STEM.

    Thanks for the recs too! Most of them are on my TBR, but I'll definitely be checking out the ones I haven't heard of. Illuminae is one of my favourites!

    • We definitely need more females in tech or the computer sciences! The entire tech support unit in my department are male and we definitely need to see more females get into that industry!

      • Yeah! It's such a shame that it's stereotypically a male dominated field. When I was doing my Digital Media certificate I was one of only 2 girls in the class and a lot of the guys were truly shocked that I was even there. I even got comments like "what is a girl even doing here", which is super frustrating. I'm really passionate about supporting women in Science/Tech. It's good to see that there is slowly more representation, but definitely not as much as there should be!!

  12. I think My Heart and Other Blackholes is Physics… She's talking about blackholes and potential energy and I learn those things in physics 😀 As a reader, I'm a bit afraid to read books that's so science-y (even though I plan to study biology) because I'm afraid I won't understand anything and feel disconnected! But if it's done right like My Heart and Other Blackholes, then I think it's okay. I'd love to see more science though. I think it would be interesting 🙂
    My recent post Do Adaptations Affect Our Reading Experience?

    • Whoops you're totally right about My Heart and Other Black Holes being about physics. I have no idea why I thought she was into chemistry… and yes, I'd love to read more books like My Heart and Other Black Holes! It wasn't all about the science but it was there and that's what matters!

    • YESSSS! We definitely need more ladies in STEM and it's important to get people thinking about it at a early age. I know that when I was younger, I was told that science was for boys. Nothing makes me prouder than being a STEM girl 😀

  13. I've noticed that a lot of characters are book store workers and writers in fiction. I guess writers aren't into science. I hate when they add lots of extra facts when they do include science, like I had to do all this research so I'm throwing it in. But that's better than getting it wrong. I'm lucky, my sister is a biologist so I have a science advisor. Haha!
    My recent post Shadow Hunters Series Episodes One and Two Review

    • Yeah I totally agree! Most sciency books tend to be a massive info-dump like "HEY LOOK AT ALL THIS RESEARCH I DID". I guess there just needs to be a better balance of science and plot. I'll keep looking for that one book that'll blow me away.

  14. KokobaJewelry

    I wish I had recommendations, but I will be looking through these to see if any tickle my fancy. Yes STEMinism!!

  15. I definitely agree with why authors might not be writing science! I guess more of the writerly types would be into English and such, right?!? it makes sense to me! And yes it's definitely great to have representation in stuff like sciencey things, but I think (like you said) it needs to be done right or not at all. XD I personally have zero interest in science (and I faaaaail at maths omg) so it hasn't bothered me.

    I think A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Grey was all about physics and things, to add to your list. 😀

    • Yeah I can definitely understand why people don't want to write about it because it can be pretty easy to get it completely wrong. I'm still waiting for that one sciency book to blow me away.

      Ooh I have the first two books of the Firebird trilogy. Will definitely pick them up this year! I really need to read more science fiction because as much as I harp on about science, it's a genre that I tend to avoid a little.

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