Many readers may remember Danica McKellar as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years. Some may know her as the author of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem in mathematical physics. Nowadays, she’s hoping that young girls will see her as a cool ambassador of math. In her newly released book, “Girls Get Curves,” McKellar explains why geometry is worth knowing: it promotes logical thinking and reveals why diamonds are shiny! Hmmm.
Some call this patronizing. (Where’s the boy math book filled with explosions and trucks? Or is “boy math” just…you know…math?). But many more love McKellar’s message: girls can and should do math. Besides, “Curves” is the fourth in a best-selling series, so something about this approach is sticking. And hers is not the only example. In 2010, the Society of Women Engineers co-designed Computer Engineer Barbie, hoping she could make engineering seem “cool” to young girls.
A more recent example was less well received. In June, the EU Commission’s “Women in Research and Innovation” campaign released a video called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing.” In the video, clicking high heels give way to three slender, skirted silhouettes. An attractive male scientist takes notice over his microscope. Images flash over a dance-y beat: lipstick interchanged with test tubes, girls giggling and posing and blowing kisses. One even writes something on a whiteboard. Science!
The video was scrapped. Many found the obvious stereotyping offensive, but there are scientific reasons to doubt the video would work as intended. Recent psychological research suggests that girlifying science may not be the best way to get girls thinking about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (also called “STEM”). And, thankfully, the research also offers specific suggestions for what might work better.
Before considering what a girly science video might do to young girls, one might wonder where the idea came from. This meme seems concerned with whether girls feel like they will fit in (or want to fit in) with typical mathematicians and scientists. In McKellar’s “Hot X: Algebra Exposed,” the book preceding “Girls Get Curves,” she shared her own hesitations: “I had an image stuck in my head of who could be really good at math—nerdy guys who would grow up to look like Einstein—and I simply didn't look the part.”
But the concern about fit goes beyond the image of mathematicians as male. There is also a stereotype that the women who do make it into math and science are somehow unfeminine. “Teva-wearing frumps,” as Marie Claire magazine put it. This unfeminine reputation matters: geeky computer scientists zap women’s interest in the major, and the pursuit of romance goals (e.g., love and marriage) puts women off of math. It’s easy to get behind the message being sent by STEM professionals like McKellar and the engineers behind Barbie: girly girls can love math and science, too.
However, when Dr. Denise Sekaquaptewa and I put “glamorous” STEM role models to the test, the results were not promising. In our study, middle school girls received one of four packets containing interviews and photos of three college women. One quarter of the girls saw feminine STEM role models: women wearing pastel-colored clothes and make-up, described as successful in math or science and fond of fashion magazines. The rest of the girls saw role models with some combination of these features: women who were good at STEM, but not particularly feminine (wearing plainer clothes, simply enjoying reading); feminine women who were smart, but not explicitly in STEM; or not-so-girly women succeeding in non-STEM fields.