Feminine women in STEM and feminising STEM subjects might turn girls off

Image by Eric Steuer on Flickr

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects have long been stereotyped as “masculine” topics. This perception is one of the reasons why girls tend to be less interested in STEM, and is a challenge that the STEM community has been trying to overcome.

It seems that a viable strategy to eliminate the perception would be to portray STEM subjects and women in STEM as feminine, but psychology researchers at University of Michigan (UM) discovered that this plan may actually put girls off the subjects instead.

“What we found was that the unique combination of seeming feminine and being good at math and science made girls feel worse about their own math skills,” said Diana Betz, who is a doctoral student in psychology at UM and lead author of the study. “Further, girls who did not report liking math or science before the study began felt even less likely to want to pursue math in the future when they read about feminine math and science role models.”

Image by Kevin Lim on Flickr

Betz and her colleague, Denise Sekaquaptewa, wanted to know why there are so few women in STEM compared to men, and seeked to find “ways to help women feel free to explore those fields”. They noticed that people have been trying to promote STEM fields as feminine using methods such as creating a computer engineer Barbie. Even actress and mathematician Danica McKellar, who is the embodiment of a feminine STEM role model, contributed by publishing three books that suggest that girls can be good at math and look good at the same time: Math Doesn’t Suck: How to Survive Middle-School Math without Losing Your Mind or Breaking a Nail; Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss; and Hot X: Algebra Exposed!.

“We wondered how effective those kinds of strategies were,” said Betz. “So we set out to test the idea: does making math and science seem feminine make girls more interested in them?”

Four magazines containing biographies of the same three college women in STEM were distributed by middle school teachers to their 6th and 7th grade female students. Each magazine presented the women differently. For example, one would have the women dress in neutral-coloured clothing and have normal hobbies such as reading; another would have the women decked out in pink, and their hobbies would include girly pastimes.

After the girls had looked through the magazines, they were given questionnaires that asked how confident they thought they were at maths, and whether they would choose to take maths modules in high school and college.

Betz and Sekaquaptewa also did a follow-up study, which revealed that it was the girls who already dislike STEM subjects who think that women are unlikely to be feminine and excel in STEM as well. Betz thinks this shows that the “masculine” stereotype still has a strong hold on how girls perceive STEM fields, and feminising these disciplines may not be a feasible solution after all.

“As long as that stereotype remains, it may be the case that just seeing everyday women succeeding in unexpected fields like science and engineering may be more beneficial than seeing extra-feminine women in STEM, at least to girls at this age.”

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