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."


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.
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