Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Girlie scientist role models could do more harm than good

The lack of women in science, maths and engineering (STEM) careers continues to raise concerns. One cause of the anomaly is thought to be beliefs among schoolchildren that these subjects are somehow inherently "masculine" and not for girls.

So what's needed to inspire schoolgirls, you might think, is sciencey female role models who show that you can be successful in STEM subjects and at the same time be feminine. Some attempts have already been made in that direction - the toy company Mattel brought out a "Computer Engineer Barbie" (complete with pink laptop) and mathematician Danica McKellar (pictured, right) has written a book aimed at inspiring girls: "Math Doesn't Suck: How To Survive Middle School Math Without Losing Your Mind Or Breaking A Nail". (Update: And the EU have just launched a new initiative "Science: it's a girl thing").

The trouble, according to a pair of new studies by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa at the University of Michigan, is that girlie science role models can backfire, actually putting off girls who have little existing interest in science and maths subjects.

The first study involved 144 girls (average age 11.5 years) reading about female undergrad role models in a magazine-style interview. Some of the girls read about three female students who were successful in STEM subjects and were also overtly "girlie" (e.g. they wore make up and pink clothes, and liked reading fashion magazines). For schoolgirls who said they had little interest in science subjects, reading about these kind of role models actually diminished their plans to study maths in the future, reduced their maths interest, and lowered their belief in their own abilities and their chances of short-term success (as compared with outcomes for their like-minded peers who read about three successful STEM role-models who weren't overtly girlie - for example, they wore dark-coloured clothes).

Betz and Sekaquaptewa think this ironic effect could be because girlie female scientists seem extra-difficult to emulate. To test this, 42 more schoolgirls (average age 11.4 years) read interviews with more role models. Afterwards, girls who were uninterested in science subjects rated the success of girlie female scientists as less attainable than the success of female scientists who weren't overtly girlie. Girls not interested in science also tended to say that being good at maths and being girlie don't go together.

What does all this mean? Although there's plenty of evidence that stereotype-busting role models can be beneficial, these new results suggest that role models that take on too many stereotypic beliefs at once can actually backfire. "Young girls may see [the success of such role models] as particularly difficult to emulate," the researchers said, "given their rigid stereotypes about gender and scientists."

This research focused on girls at middle-school and it's important to note that the same findings may not apply to older teens or college students. No doubt some readers will also smart at the way femininity or girlieness was conceived in this study, potentially perpetuating unhelpful gender stereotypes. For now, Betz and Sekaquaptewa cautioned: "Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalion-style feminine makeovers may do more harm than good."

 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org


Betz, D., and Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

24 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for highlighting this research, Christian.

    I've never been a fan of the "it's OK to be into science, as long as you're still femme-y enough for us" thing. Like, it used to be if you were a geeky girl you had some measure of freedom from such norms. Now there's a geeky-girl ideal that's just as thin, beautiful, white, perfectly made-up, socially adroit, flirtatious and charming as the regular feminine ideal; this one just carries a calculator.

    But still, it's interesting to see that young girls in general are turned off by this ... I know *I* would've been supremely alienated by such an approach, at any age, but I've always been markedly masculine, so I figured maybe I couldn't take my alienation as a typical female response.

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  2. Anonymous9:11 am

    "No doubt some readers might also smart at the way femininity or girlieness was conceived in this study, potentially perpetuating unhelpful gender stereotypes."
    Very commendable that you included this sentence, Christian. Thank you for another excellent summary of interesting research.

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  3. Anonymous11:09 am

    As a short, busty, blonde scientist, I have found my looks and femininity have only ever led to severe difficulty in being taken seriously. Giving up wearing make-up helped a bit.
    However, I have never been "girlie" - that is a completely different thing to femininity. I too dislike intensely the definition of "girlieness" used.
    Interestingly, I have found that on forums, where my looks do not come into anything I say, I am taken seriously. And when folk find out I'm a short, busty blonde they are shocked. They tend to assume I'm a small, slim, dark-haired person.

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    1. Anonymous12:13 am

      As a short, busty, brown-haired scientist, I agree!!! I have learned to never, ever, dress like a woman. Do not wear heels. Wear glasses instead of contacts. Skip the make-up. Put on a lot of black and dark brown. Pull your hair back into a severe style. Ideally, aim for "gender-neutral", and do everything you can to create the illusion of less bust. I can't help how I am built, but I am sick of dressing like a middle-aged man so that my colleagues and students will take me seriously. Sadly, I have also watched simlarly built colleagues become the target of open hostility, derisive comments, or sexual harassment charges for breaking this unwritten dress code of science. I've never been a "girlie girl" either, but I'm also not a man, and, 14 years into a science career, I am sick of dressing like I want to be one!

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    2. That sucks. As a man I've only thought that some women would need/better "tone down" a little bit in order to avoid the worst kind of speculations, but I've also always thought that it would be relatively easy to find a comfortable in-between a more natural/customary/but-perhaps-too-much looks and "I'm dressed as if I wanted to be a middle-aged man". :-/

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  4. Hi Lindsay et al ... thanks for your kind feedback and sharing your interesting perspectives on this topic.

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  5. I wonder how they took in consideration the content/tone of the texts about those role models, and how that may have affected, perhaps more significantly than the "girle scientist" type alone.

    Perhaps these texts could have suggestions/reinforcements of a fixed-ability mindset. I think that's very likely that if the achievements of the ideal model (girlie scientist) are put in a way that suggests that it was effortless to her, then the model looks somewhat like some one in a million child prodigy, rather than someone that the average girl can relate to, and be inspired.

    With the other types, such as the "black clothing" one, perhaps more it's null in effect albeit somewhat similar in nature. Perhaps they're just seem as a average "weirdo" with whom they don't relate nor aspire to be similar. "I'm fine with my grades, and I still like having dates", in contrast with the "wow, I'll never be as good as her, I'm not even bothering trying to come close".

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  6. Lindsay wrote: "I've never been a fan of the "it's OK to be into science, as long as you're still femme-y enough for us" thing."

    I'm not sure I get what you're saying. I don't think it's like the scientists are saying, "we have long struggled with the problem of lack of female scientists that are feminine enough for our standards. An attempt of changing that in the medium/long-term future consists in socially engineering the notion that both things are compatible, so hopefully in the future female scientists will be hotter". Even though no one can honestly deny that it would be an interesting collateral effect, the real point is that culturally girls/women not rarely may see their traditional/stereotypical/whatnot femininity (which they commonly value) as somewhat incompatible with science careers, perhaps even at an unconscious level. It's just a form of brain drain.

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    1. Anonymous2:41 am

      I realize it's not my place to speak for Lindsay, but I didn't take her comment to mean scientists are the "us" in question. I felt that she was either referring to 1) the peers that these middle schoolers interface with, wherein fellow middle-school girls and boys won't judge girls too harshly as long as they are femme enough, and/or 2) society on the whole, who judges scientists harshly anyhow, but more so if that scientist is a masculine woman, and that female scientists catch less criticism if they are femme.
      I agree with her in either case. But I think there is a missing distinction here. Fitting into society as a scientist is different than fitting into science as a scientist. In greater society (as in, mingling with strangers at a park or at a bar or wherever) if you're NOT feminine, you're a weirdo scientists.


      However if we are talking about fitting into the science world specifically, it is a different story, and in fact I agree with the busty commenters. If you are too feminine, fellow scientists judge you as unprofessional.

      If you're a middle school girl though, I think you're screwed on any side of the fence.

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    2. Anon is right, the "us" in my example is not scientists in particular, it's society in general. Particularly, guys, who feel entitled to judge women's worth based on how attractive they find those women to be, and who are generally backed up by pop culture and media in doing so.

      I am mostly drawing on my own experience, as a woman with 1) a long-standing, abiding interest in science, and 2) a masculine-leaning gender identity. The latter characteristic has made me downright femmephobic (i.e., avoiding things because they are considered feminine and I do not wish to be considered feminine) at times.

      Scientists might well be thinking what you have described, but if they are they will find their hypothesis (i.e., if we make science compatible with femininity, more women will choose it) is wrong.

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  7. Tristan11:08 am

    I guess the take home message worth considering if promoting STEM careers is that role models need to be believable and represent something achievable. I wonder if boys would be similarly influenced by masculine stereotypes? Would STEM role models who were good looking, popular, socially skilled, part time sports stars with a successful rock band as their hobby be seen as equally unattainable? (not making any stereotype judgements). What do we make of the 'Brian Cox effect'?

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  8. Anonymous4:46 pm

    I think the whole of this argument more or less revolves around the way female scientists think of girlieness. If we can keep the 'scientist' part aside and focus on the 'female', for now, we can safely assume that those females will try to look feminine if they find a reason to! In other words, if she finds a man who she respects and loves and that man gives enough attention to her and to girlieness in general, she will tend to try and look girlie 'for him' and then that can be the begining of her ever looking so, simply speaking. That of course assumes the bigger problem doesn't exist. That is she must be perfectly confident she 'can' look great and not be simply put off by other girls much more commonly seen as glamorous.

    So I guess the main aspects here are the female scientists' taste in men and their (men's) approach to them and finally yet most prominently, their (the scientists') self-confidence. So with this in mind, I believe the research must not simply consider female scientists as opposed to female non-scientists with no consideration to factors such as the men she normally deals with in her working life, her lifestyle before and after being a formal scientist and any previous femininity related experiences as they may have had adverse effects on her.

    In other words I believe we shouldn't look at female scientists as one dimensional beings. They are just like everyone else except that they tend to spend more time in 'bubbles' many people don't find appealing and in fact dull and end up therefore (the scientists) having different experiences and prespectives of certain aspects in life than many other people.

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    1. Anonymous10:26 pm

      "If we can keep the 'scientist' part aside and focus on the 'female', for now, we can safely assume that those females will try to look feminine if they find a reason to! In other words, if she finds a man who she respects and loves and that man gives enough attention to her and to girlieness in general, she will tend to try and look girlie 'for him' and then that can be the begining of her ever looking so, simply speaking. "

      All women are heterosexual, I guess. Or want to be part of a couple.

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  9. Anonymous3:46 pm

    I doubt whether this is about the attainability of being both "girlie" and a scientist. I think the reaction is not, "wow, gorgeous and smart! some people have all the luck. I give up," I think the perception is, "wow, even if she's a scientist, a cute girl is still a Barbie doll, and a Barbie just isn't going to get the kind of respect that I would need for science to be worth it to me." The opportunity to benefit from a more masculine image is enticing; by totally feminizing the image of the scientist, they took away the promise, "if you become a scientist, you'll get the kind of respect that you feel men get."

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    1. interesting point, I hadn't thought of that. thanks for posting your comment

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    2. I think that this explanation would predict a result of less interest in girlishness rather than a decreased interest in STEM. And there's no reason why it would be something so specifically linked/triggered to situations such as the one of the experiment, so it would be a widespread phenomenon. And I have the impression that women aren't in general trying to get more respect by being less feminine/getting away of career choices that are seen as stereotypically girly. And I don't think that the experiment can make such an impression that science is a thing for "legally blonde" type of girls to the point of scare away the average girl who just does not want to be seen like that.

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    3. Yeah, this is kind of like what I was trying to say. I agree.

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  10. This is a really interesting piece of research - thanks for bringing it to my attention. It saddens me that girls as young 11 could be interpreting society in a such a way that they believe that to be both attractive and successful/intelligent is unattainable.

    However, I do think girls need to be given more credit - teens know when you're feeding them bullsh*t. They know that it is very unlikely that the same girl is going to be a contestant in BINTM, and be in line for a nobel prize before she's 40. So, as rational beings (my economist boyfriend would be proud), they pick the option they believe will give them the best chance of success. As has already been pointed out here - if you need to be both attractive *and* intelligent to be a scientist, which the campaign seems to suggest, it just pushes it further out of reach.

    There's no doubt that school is a time when these divides are at their most prominent - as a chubby, glasses-wearing teen with an unfortunate mullet haircut (I know), I was grateful to hold onto the fact that I a) had a brain and b) was willing to work hard to achieve academically. While I had the eternally optimistic belief that I would eventually develop into a swan (I didn't, but thankfully they invented straighteners and I learnt how to use make-up), had I thought that my ugly duckling appearance would have held me back in even more careers, maybe I would have stopped trying altogether.

    I think Tristan's point is really valid - what would be the equivalent response in a male version of the study? Does male 'competitiveness' over-ride this sort of effect? Also, is there any difference in single sex education compared to co-ed? For example, do all-female environments remove or intensify the smart-pretty divide?

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  11. Anonymous4:50 pm

    Rather than constantly trying to counteract the stereotype (ie advertising and marketing) lets get to the root of the problem and regulate against all of the gross gender stereotypes that kids are bombarded with on a daily basis.

    Marketing and advertising directly aimed at children is just plain wrong. If you have to advertise to their parent do it at 11pm, but frankly Marketeers should keep their grubby paws off kids.

    I grew up in the 80s and wasn't subjected to very much direct marketing. Yes, I played with dolls, but I also had non-gendered Meccano and lego sets, full access to my Grandfather's tool shed and I was lucky enough to go to schools that encouraged girls to pursue their interests. For me that was woodwork, metalwork and graphical drawing (yes, I remember when AutoCAD API hit the classroom. Later I studied physics and eventually chose architecture. I never questioned my ability to do the course and neither did my teachers.

    For a long time I couldn't understand why young women lost confidence in their abilities; I couldn't fathom educators had to fight to capture girl's attention in maths and science classes. So I did a bit of research and the evidence clearly shows a direct link between dropping rates of participation and the rise is direct marketing to children. It's a problem that is repeated when looking at young people's relationship with food and alcohol, and it's a very real problem when you consider their gender as it relates to their career aspirations.

    Regulate advertising in the public sphere (that is on TV, Radio and on the streets) and at the very least you'll be cutting down on the BS kids are exposed to.

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  12. Anonymous5:44 pm

    Science is a long hard slog, it is hard work. The thing to do is to make sure girls learn that they can become something from hard work and to keep trying if they don't succeed initially. There is interesting study out there (forgive the citation lack) that indicates that girls are rewarding for being good and boys for trying to do something. It seems this may lead to girls thinking that their intelligence etc is innate so lack or early success makes them quit and boys internalizing that effort = outcome. Since science requires being comfortable with feeling stupid- of looking at the unknown and boundaries of what is know, classroom success does not predict experimental success. What is needed is the ability to fail and pick yourself up and start over. The messages we teach first grade girls daily may be way more important than anything else. As a woman with multiple degrees in research science and clinical practice, I am thankful a prime message from my parents growing up was to try or attempt something and if you fail, to figure out how to recover. They were always there to help that process but turned us loose to try, to make mistakes, and to learn. It made me curious, stubborn, and interested. but i also grew up in a region where lots of my friends had both dads and moms in science and in tech.

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  13. Anonymous2:32 pm

    The problem that I have with all of this intentional marketing of science for women (awful UK :"Science: It's a girl thing") is that it lacks diversity. As a female astrophysicist, I was lucky to be surrounded in graduate school by other women who ranged in looks, ethnic backgrounds, shapes, heights, hair color, make-up habits. I think the point should be that a scientist can look and act like anything, as long as their science is solid and they are passionate about the topic they are studying. I am happy that there is effort to show female, "girlie" scientists and not only the stereo-typical, older, white man with crazy hair. But in catering to the other extreme, we have left out everyone else. This is why I try to do public outreach and mentoring, so that I might inspire someone who finds me relatable (either because she's dark haired, or short, or with curly hair, or likes to knit, but hates to wear nail polish, but sometimes wears mascara... or she also finds galaxies awesome, or ... whatever the reason!) I hate that we fixate on looks and one category of person when a more effective campaign to improve diversity in science would appeal to people of all types (duh!) Anyway, thanks for this article!

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  14. Anonymous3:29 pm

    female engineers (me) and scientists shouldn't be put into two categories of either dressing to play down their body or being 'girlie'. Kids should be presented with a wider and subtler spectrum of female role models.

    I'm a PhD in engineering, work in physical chemistry and sit in a mechical eng department. I used to have magenta hair (now it's black for ease of upkeep), wear eyeliner and mascara regularly, ripped jeans and animal print tops sometimes. I am who I am and as someone with artistic leanings (I love art basically), then my dress is part of who I am too.

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  15. Anonymous5:02 pm

    I can only say how I would respond to this. If I saw the dolled up female scientist as a young girl, I wouldn't notice that she was a scientist. I would only notice her looks and the only message that would get through to me is that this is how women should look.

    If I saw a female scientist looking less dolled up, only then would I notice what she does instead of focusing on her looks, and only then would the message get through that it's okay for women to be scientists.

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  16. Anonymous11:14 am

    This makes me so mad. It's completely sexist. I'm incredibly feminine. I'm also a environmental science major minoring in marine biology, and I hold a pretty darn good GPA, at the University of Washington, well known for its scientific research. But you know what, I love makeup and fashion. I have modeled and even done burlesque. I like being a girl. But I'm incredibly passionate about nature and plan on doing something to make the world a better place after I graduate. Call me an oxymoron, but I think its completely okay to be a feminine scientist and I think portraying more beautiful women in science fields is helpful. Maybe someday this stereotype will go away. I don't think these ads should only portray beautiful women, but all types really. Honestly though, I hope when I graduate I will be taken seriously in the workplace, despite the fact that am a natural blond, tall, busty woman with blue eyes and yes, I do wear makeup sometimes. Apparently all I can do is hope though.

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