Friday, May 18, 2012

We gotta watch out for feminine role models wearing pink

Beware blonde, feminine role models wearing pink.

Today's guest post comes to us courtesy of Sara Callori. She is a physics Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY. In the lab, Sara loves working with x-rays and even has a Bragg diffraction tattoo. She would eventually like to focus on science teaching and outreach because she loves to get people to stop being intimidated when they think of physics.

This may sound odd, but I never aspired to be feminine until I became a physicist. I grew up playing sports and getting short haircuts. There were phases when my mother would have had to tranquilize me to get me into a dress (this was infrequent as my tom-boy qualities seemed to come from her own lack of femininity). As I got older, I started to develop some style, but it was more comfort over fashion, especially when it came down to 8 am classes in undergrad. When I made the decision to go into graduate school for physics, however, my outlook changed. I wanted to be someone who bucked the stereotype: a fashionable, fun, young woman who also is a successful physicist. I thought that if I didn’t look like the stereotypical physicist, I could be someone that was a role model to younger students by demonstrating an alternative to the stereotype of who can be a scientist.

This week researchers at the University of Michigan released findings that dashed my hopes for being the cool physicist that younger girls want to emulate. In a paper titled “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”, psychology researchers Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa found that women presented as both successful in science/technology/engineering/math (STEM) careers and possessing “feminine traits” negatively affected how young girls viewed science and math.

When I read the summary of these findings, I was dismayed. I became even more disappointed when I read that for feminine traits they used “wearing make-up and pink clothes, liking fashion magazines”. Gender-neutral women were given traits such as “wearing dark-colored clothes and glasses, likes reading”.

The assignment of these traits bothered me on several levels. The most immediate was how narrow the study’s concept of “feminine” seemed. If you asked me if I considered myself feminine, I would say yes. I like colorful dresses during the summer and own too many purses -- but I also wear glasses, play rugby, and have tattoos. Most real-life women, including women in STEM, also possess traits from a mix of “feminine” and “gender-neutral” categories. It is important to remember these are the women younger students will encounter when they are introduced to female scientists.  

Additionally, the researchers’ idea of “feminine” seems to play into another set of negative stereotypes common in popular culture, what you might call the “Legally Blonde” scenario. In the movie, the protagonist is a woman who could easily be described as “wearing make-up and pink clothes, liking fashion magazines”. The story builds around how someone with those traits is perceived as unintelligent and unsuited for work that requires a strong academic background. While throughout the story, the main character shows she isn’t just a pretty face, there are still many people who will associate these types of feminine traits with unintelligence. 

This association is at odds with women in STEM fields and it makes me wonder if some of the girls’ negative associations of feminine STEM professionals were due to those traits being perceived as incompatible with women in STEM careers. (To briefly address the finding which showed that femininity could be compatible with overall school success, the “success” descriptions seem to be generic enough that they could be interpreted as encompassing non-academic accomplishments as well; e.g. being well liked by classmates or elected to the student council.)

This study also unsettled me on a personal level. I’ve long desired to be a role model to younger students. I enjoy sharing the excitement of physics, especially with those who might be turned away from the subject because of stereotypes or negative perceptions. I always thought that by being outgoing, fun, and yes, feminine would enable me to reach students who see physics as the domain of old white men. These results have me questioning myself, which can only hurt my outreach efforts by making me more self conscious about them. They make me wonder if I have to be disingenuous about who I am in order to avoid being seen as “too feminine” for physics.

Overall, that this study could be useful as a springboard for improving discussion and ideas for motivating girls in STEM. However, I think that their idea of “feminine” is too narrow to apply these findings broadly. Rather than work in the black and white “feminine” vs. “gender neutral” cases, why not build further ideas, research, and programs around much more realistic types of women who are currently succeeding in many STEM fields.

These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily either reflect or disagree with those of the
DXS editorial team. 


  1. I think a lot of women with a prior interest in STEM fields start off not being especially feminine, or not explicitly or intentionally identifying that way. I certainly did, and your self-described style evolution resonated with my own experience. And on a visceral level, I agree that, at the time, successful STEM women who were also fashionable (which seems to be the focus of their notion of femininity) did seem "too good," displaying traits difficult to attain on their own, and even more so in tandem. But I do agree with you - there is a range of expression, and it's possible that falling in the middle between "gender-neutral" and "feminine" is a good thing, and could show girls and young women that they can express themselves as they wish, rather than having to conform to either of the extremes.

  2. The researchers did not create the stereotypes from their own views, nor was their intention to create "feminine" women as the opposite of the stereotypical computer scientist. The assignment of clothing and hobbies was done to produce stereotypes of computer scientists based on ratings given by participants in a separate study.

    Additionally, the study itself did not involve "role models", so the generalization (which appears in the paper as well as the press release) is not a valid one. The experiments involved interacting with confederates; the participants thought that the other people were students like themselves and, since the participants were not computer science majors, the idea of another student being a role model is a huge stretch.

    Furthermore, the conclusions the researchers made have a lot of holes, in my opinion. They viewed the social comparison as responsible for personal success ratings when, in fact, they are simply an explanation for them.

    What I would have concluded from this study is very simple: women who view themselves as more like the stereotypical computer scientist rate themselves as more likely to be successful as computer scientists. This correlation does not suggest anything causal at all. It does not even suggest that women are paying attention to what a stereotypical computer scientist is like (although other studies suggest that they probably do).

  3. Great post, Sara!

    While the NYC (where I am located) culture is more fashion-centric than most places and a majority of people tend to adhere to some iteration of a fashion trend, there is still a negative perception when it comes to "smarts" and dresses/hair/shoes/pink/etc. Perhaps a better approach would be to encourage an open mind instead of asking scientist role models to possibly go against their own person and become more "gender neutral." I'd rather dress the way I dress and prove that study wrong.

    Also, I don't think you need to counter the idea that you have a lot of purses with playing rugby or having tattoos. Why do these things have to be antagonistic to one another? They are all things that you embrace for self-expression and I don;t believe we should categorize them as "feminine" or "un-feminine." In my opinion, doing this just perpetuates the stereotype, even when it is unintended.