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The Trouble with Barbie Science

Recruiting women into the sciences with girly images can backfire



iStock/Avesun

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.

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.

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