How the "CSI Effect" Could Solve the Case of Missing Women in STEM

Cristen Conger

Computer science needs a Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan - aka Emily Deschanel.
Computer science needs a Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan - aka Emily Deschanel.
© Joshua Lott/Reuters/Corbis

Forensics is a rare area of science that needs no help recruiting more women into its ranks. Although some people seem surprised that young women would be attracted to such a potentially grisly profession that involves analyzing blood 'n' guts via forensic toxicology, forensic chemistry, crime scene analysis and so forth, they now comprise an overwhelming majority of those in classrooms and crime labs. And the reasons behind the exponential growth of women in forensics both exemplifies how to attract more girls and women to STEM careers and reflects the challenges of retaining female STEM talent to top-tier positions.

What forensics aptly demonstrates is the power of visibility. Coined in the late 2000s, the "CSI Effect" refers to how the popularity of primetime crime scene dramas such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Law and Order: SVU" and "Bones" has piqued audience interest in forensics to the point that jurors sometimes have Hollywood-level expectations of how courtroom evidence can and should be analyzed. Though the "CSI Effect" might add a wrinkle to due process from time to time, it also has sparked a trickle-down into law enforcement ranks, as younger women especially engage with sharply-dressed, attractive female protagonists on the show who solve crimes with their scientific savvy. As a result, the Washington Post reported in 2012, "as forensic science comes of age, it will likely be led, unlike nearly every other scientific discipline, by women."

In 1964, Michigan State University began offering the nation's first forensics college program; otherwise, law enforcement agencies either trained their own analysts or recruited civilian scientists. As of 2008, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences has accredited 22 undergraduate and graduate forensics programs across the country, and 90 percent of its students are female. And whereas many science master's and PhD tracks have trouble losing women along the way, forensics doesn't seem to suffer from the same excruciating time demands, institutional discrimination and cutthroat male-dominated atmospheres of scientific academia and research. Speaking to USA Today in 2008, Diane Vance, director of the forensic science program at Eastern Kentucky University, said:

"Women often prefer the cooperative environment of a crime lab over the competitive atmosphere found in the nation's top science labs. The more stable hours are better suited for those who want a family."

Today, the inspirational impact of the "CSI Effect" is so well-known, in fact, that some computer scientists wonder whether it could be duplicated to draw more women toward coding, development and programming. Unlike in forensics, the number of female computer science degree-holders has dropped, despite its lucrative potential. With a median income range of $80,000 to $100,000, computer science often pays far more than forensics and its median $30,000 annual salary, but many cite the persistent image of coding and programming (brogramming?) as a "guy thing," steering girls away from computer science fields and toward careers like forensics where they see themselves quite literally portrayed on TV, saving the day at all hours on prime-time and in syndication.