Female Scientists Make Great Role Models! (Except When They’re Feminine)

A couple of days ago one of the Skepchick quickies was S.E. Smith’s article ‘Get Your Antifemininity Out of My Feminism’. It’s a wonderful piece, and it expresses an idea I’ve spoken about before— that by undervaluing things that are seen as feminine, we undermine our goal of gender equality.

Antifemininity is misogynist. What you are saying when you engage in this type of rhetoric is that you think things traditionally associated with women are wrong. Which is misogynist. By telling feminine women that they don’t belong in the feminist movement, you are reinforcing the idea that to be feminine and a woman is wrong, that women who want to be taken seriously need to be more masculine, because most people view gender presentation in binary ways.

This is why I was especially frustrated by a recent study published by researchers at the University of Michigan, that showed that girls who were presented with a female scientist ‘role-model’ who displayed typically (and quite narrowly) feminine traits actually showed decreased interest in STEM fields.

The girls read magazine interviews about three female university students displaying feminine characteristics (wearing make-up and pink clothes, likes fashion magazines) or gender-neutral traits (wearing dark-colored clothes and glasses, likes reading). Role models also displayed either STEM success (described as an engineering star, praised by a chemistry professor) or general school success (described as a freshman star, praised by professor from an unspecified field).

Participants completed a self-evaluation of math skills and a questionnaire about their future plans to take high school math.

The researchers found that feminine STEM role models decreased girls’ self-rated math interest, ability and short-term success expectations. They also had a negative impact on girls’ future plans to study math among girls who did not identify with STEM.

The authors propose a few reasons for this:

Sekaquaptewa said girls not interested in math and science saw simultaneous success in both domains at least attainable, suggesting that their lack of motivation was related to the perceived unlikelihood of combining femininity and STEM success.

Replicating past research, this work suggests that role models whose success seems unobtainable can make young students feel threatened rather than motivated. But even if they see feminine STEM role models, girls who do not care for math or science might not be motivated to like these fields.

“Rather than opening these girls’ minds to new possibilities, the feminine STEM role model seemed to shut them further,” said Sekaquaptewa, U-M professor of psychology.

The overall study raises the possibility that role models who counter more than one competing stereotype (women can be good at math or be feminine, but not both) are less effective than role models who just counter one (e.g., a typical woman who excels in STEM). The researchers also say that young girls may see their success as difficult to emulate if they believe that women in STEM are “too good” to be role models.

Which sucks. Big time.

The first thing to note is the comment about role models smashing multiple competing stereotypes being less effective than those who only counter one– where does this leave us when trying to inspire young women of colour, or disabled women, or others who don’t fit into multiple boxes that have generally been ascribed to your typical scientist?

The response to the findings in these sorts of studies is tricky to navigate– Because on the one hand, there is a pretty strong societal pressure on girls to perform their femininity in very particular and often quite narrow ways, and on the other, there is the ascription of mathematics and science as things that are more compatible with masculine traits than feminine ones.

There is also this notion that feminine is incompatible with successful, that feminine is incompatible with being taken seriously as a person. But none of these things constitute things that are wrong with being feminine.

So girls are shoe-horned into this false decision between fitting into the societal notion of femininity, or having an interest in STEM subjects.

And when girls are saying that they aren’t inspired by feminine role models? Well, that sucks because we’re losing so many girls with the aptitude and the ability for STEM subjects, and we’re also seeing that they’ve been ingrained with that internalised misogyny and antifemininity pretty early on.

There is also this idea that by bombarding girls with feminine role models, to supplement their pink microscopes and science kits, we’re further reinforcing the idea that to be a girl is to like pink and feminine things, yet another reminder of the stereotype one must fit into. It isn’t hard to see how girls who don’t feel like they fit into this stereotypical notion of femininity might balk at it.

So we have these side-by-side pressures of navigating gender identity and presentation, and figuring out what ones interests are, and they’re playing off one another in a way that isn’t good for either.

However, I don’t think this is entirely cause for despair. While I do think that role models matter to some degree, I also think that it is the people I know personally who have encouraged and supported me that are more important for my interest in science. This view is supported by children on a panel at Logicon, as reported on by Marie-Claire Shanahan:

A physicist in the audience asked the students what people like him could do to be better role models for young people in science. It’s a common solution proposed for encouraging and maintaining student interest: provide more and better role models. All four panelists, though talkative and eloquent, were silent. They looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, and shrugged their shoulders. Desiree rephrased the question asking them who their role models are and why they are good role models. Not surprisingly the ones they listed where people in their lives, mostly family members and teachers. The justifications, though, were a little more surprising and explained their confused silence. The students didn’t focus at all on the what the role models were like, other than they should be generally nice people. It wasn’t about the role models; it was about what the role models did for the kids. Good role models challenged them just enough. They asked good questions, and most importantly, let the kids find out the answers. Each student repeated essentially the same answer. Role models should encourage and inspire questions and exploration, that’s all. The kids themselves need to do everything else. There were no comments about having role models that were like the students or role models who broke stereotypes or role models who had overcome challenges and no indication that they really wanted to learn from someone else’s experiences.

Young people who are interested in science need not role models, but mentors. A course of action which still leaves us out in the cold with regards to helping young women navigate their gender presentation, but does pose some reassurance that there is yet hope to fix the gender imbalance in STEM-fields.

Featured Image Credit: Hedy Lamarr, from Cocktail Party Physics on Scientific American. Lamarr was an actress well known for her beauty, who also co-invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications, which is necessary for the wireless technology we take for granted today. Bad-ass feminine scientist? Heck, yea.

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.

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