A grantmaker is betting a TV show for teen girls can help narrow the STEM gender gap

Dallas philanthropist Lyda Hill has devoted much of her giving to tackling social problems through science. Her Lyda Hill Philanthropies supports museums, basic research and programs like National Geographic Explorers.

Over the past few years, the grantmaker also has ventured into media production: Financing and helping develop a TV series, “Mission Unstoppable,” aimed at girls aged 13 to 17, which features women succeeding in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — careers.

The CBS series — which is one part entertainment and one part feminist career inspiration — has averaged a million broadcast viewers in its first two seasons and has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards. It’s also part of a growing recognition in the philanthropic community that TV shows, feature films, podcasts and other media projects are powerful tools to reach new audiences and shift entrenched narratives, what insiders call “narrative change.”

Since 2009, grantmakers have given at least $2.1 billion to television-related projects, according to data from Candid and Media Impact Funders, a network of grantmakers.

Narrative change draws on disciplines like communications and movement organizing to help people rethink the stories that define their worldview. During the past decade, writers, filmmakers, marketing executives, nonprofits and philanthropies, scholars and advocates have increasingly collaborated on strategies to tell stories that shape attitudes or beliefs and motivate people to act. Those might include projects to strengthen grass-roots news outlets, help advocates and organizers identify the most effective ways to frame their messages, and boost representation both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

“It was completely new territory for us,” said Nicole Small, CEO and president of Lyda Hill Philanthropies, of making “Mission Unstoppable.”

The show, which premiered in 2019, presents scientists working in fields like coding, biology and veterinary science as relatable role models. The fifth season premiered in October with an episode featuring a chemical engineer who makes fuel out of soybean oil, a mathematician whose work became the foundation of GPS technology and a biomedical engineer using seashells to help grow human bones.

“We’re looking to create a culture shift in how girls see themselves in the world,” Small said. “Whether or not viewers pursue a career in STEM, we hope that they see themselves as meaningful contributors to change in the world and understand how important science is to the world around them.”

Changing culture is a long game, and measuring progress can be tricky. But early signs suggest “Mission Unstoppable” is succeeding, according to survey data from girls ages 10 to 15 and parents of girls of the same age who watched the show. A white paper produced last year by the Raben Group found 17% increased interest in STEM among viewers and 16% increased interest in STEM courses in high school or university. After watching the show, 20% more viewers described STEM careers as “appealing,” while 19% more said they perceived STEM careers as “creative.”

“Mission Unstoppable” is an outgrowth of a Lyda Hill Philanthropies initiative called IF/THEN, which works to help advance women in STEM and inspire the next generation to pursue these career paths. The initiative’s name is inspired by the idea “if you can see it, then you can be it,” Small said.

According to the American Association of University Women, women make up only 34% of the STEM workforce, and by college graduation, men greatly outnumber women in every engineering and computing discipline.

In partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Hill has supported a group of more than 120 scientists, or “ambassadors,” working across a wide range of fields. The women receive media and communications training to help boost awareness of their work. Around 40 of the IF/THEN “ambassadors” have been featured on “Mission Unstoppable.”

Lyda Hill Philanthropies has been the show’s primary funder, though Small declined to share how much the grantmaker has contributed.

It can cost “millions of dollars to produce shows,” she said, adding that the foundation’s significant investment has had a great return on investment. A 2021 report produced by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media demonstrated that representation in film and television plays a “profound role” in how young girls think about their future career trajectories.

But production and entertainment value matter.

“When you immerse a viewer in a story that has humor, that has excitement, that has all kinds of emotional currency, it tends to be so much more sticky than if they feel like they’re reading a textbook about that subject,” says Bryan Curb, senior vice president and general manager of Educational & Informational Programming with Hearst Media Production Group, which worked alongside Lyda Hill Philanthropies to produce the series.

“Missions, while they may be well-meaning, are not really going to be fulfilled if you don’t get people watching,” he added. “Our goal is to get eyeballs on the screen.”

Unlike a documentary or feature-length film that a viewer might watch just once, television series offer opportunities for repeat exposure to messages. That repetition can add up and be especially powerful.

The footprint of “Mission Unstoppable” goes beyond the half-hour weekend TV show. Clips are repurposed in bite-size segments on TikTok and Instagram, where together the show has nearly a million followers. An additional web-only series, the STEM Loft, is shared on the show’s YouTube channel, which has more than 38,000 subscribers.

Other grantmakers, like the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, have backed documentaries, books, television and theater to help build public understanding about scientists.

“The more people think that scientists are people like them, living lives that they can relate to, with motivations they can relate to, the more progress we can make in healing that divide between science and the rest of society,” says Adam Falk, the foundation’s president. “One way you do that is the arts, not just by beating people over the head and telling them what you think they should know.”

These lessons can apply to nearly any issue or cause.

“Individual stories can move audiences in really profound ways,” says Erica Lynn Rosenthal, director of research at the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, which has studied the power of entertainment to change mindsets and culture for more than 20 years.

In recent years, Rosenthal and her colleagues tracked how TV shows and films affect audience attitudes about transgender people, immigrants and health equity, among other issues.

“We know it’s working,” Rosenthal says. “It’s a definitive ‘yes’ if we understand it broadly. Narratives are always being bolstered, being changed, being shifted, being affected.”

It can be tough to attribute long-term changes to particular shows. Sometimes researchers look at incremental indicators, using proxies like changes in language that appear on social media to track how audience attitudes shift.

Small, with Lyda Hill Philanthropies, hopes to gather more data about the show’s impact as its viewers grow older and progress in their education and careers. For now, she hopes other donors with a passion for STEM back the project and influence more young women.

“The truth is, the needle hasn’t moved as much in women and STEM careers as we would like,” she says. “We’re going to have to get creative.”