The feminine STEM role models actually made girls feel the least interested in math, and the least confident. Plus, the girls who already didn’t like math or science (the prime targets for recruitment campaigns) felt least likely to ever take math classes after seeing those role models. In our follow-up study, math-disinterested girls saw the feminine STEM role models’ success as furthest out of reach. Perhaps contrary to popular intuition, adding the “girly” factor to otherwise everyday women succeeding in male-dominated fields made those women less motivating, not more. When science and femininity seem so antithetical, the idea of being both a science whiz and a girly girl could seem pretty daunting. When a role model’s success seems impossible to achieve, people may feel less motivated to try.
More research is needed to fully understand the effects of girly STEM role models. Other attempts to change unfeminine stereotypes could help. However, our research suggests that the girly science trend may limit rather than broaden what girls think is possible for them. “Making math pink ” (as physicist-cartoonist Zach Weiner puts it) could send the message that successful women in STEM must be smart and girly (which might seem unlikely or even unappealing), rather than the intended message that all girls (even girly ones) can succeed in STEM.
That said, one idea behind the girly science pitch has empirical support. More girls might pursue math and science if they felt like they could identify with the people in them. Geeky computer scientists are uninspiring for women who feel dissimilar to them.
In contrast, women will be more interested and confident in STEM fields if they feel like they can relate to their female professors, or if they share something in common with successful women in STEM. Gender alone might not cut it. Eighth-grade girls changed their negative opinions of scientists after getting to know female mentors who had impressive credentials as well as real lives away from the lab. Rather than broadcasting videos of women who look relatable to young girls, we should highlight women who are relatable to girls. Ideally, that means women with accomplishments, passions, and concerns shared by a variety of girls—not just girly ones. Viewed in this light, McKellar’s books have the right idea at heart: she’s a real mathematician sharing her real story, all while demonstrating how to do math and why it is important. That means way more than a Barbie with a tiny pink laptop.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.