The More Feminine Women Are, The Worse People Assume They Are at Science

Feminine Scientists

People assume feminine women are unlikely to be scientists, but more likely to be preschool teachers, according to a depressing new study.

While huge strides have been made in accepting women in formerly male-dominated fields, not all women are viewed the same way.

A recent study conducted by Sarah Banchefsky, a research associate at the Colorado University Stereotyping and Prejudice lab (CUSP), showed a random sampling of 51 adults (25 men, 26 women) an assortment of photos of 40 men and 40 women. The participants were told they were participating in a study of “first impressions” and were asked to rate the person in each photo according to how masculine or feminine they appeared. They were then asked to guess the likelihood that a person was a scientist and the likelihood that the person was a preschool teacher.

As a group, women were rated as more feminine then men, and rated less likely to be a scientist and more likely to be a preschool teacher. (sigh) But within the group of women, the more feminine you were rated, the more likely it was that participants thought you were not a scientist and must be a preschool teacher. (double sigh)

The same was not true for feminine men.

So when people look at women, they judge how suited they are for science based on how “masculine” they appear. That’s a tricky bias that we need to be aware of and that we need to fight.

A woman does not need to be “manly” to be a scientist. STEM fields are not “masculine” pursuits. Science is gender-neutral. But society still has an inherent bias against femininity when thinking about science, and it undoubtedly contributes to the lack of women in STEM fields and the number of women who quit STEM fields in frustration.

For the record, all 80 photos — men and women — were professors in STEM fields taken from various universities.

They were all scientists.

Five Questions with Sarah Banchefsky

Did anything in the results of this study surprise you?

I was not surprised by the bottom line that feminine women are deemed less likely to be scientists. Women in STEM fields have been talking for a long time about how they downplay femininity to be taken seriously, or are met by surprise when someone learns they are an engineer. However I was surprised by the size of the effect—it’s a pretty large effect that’s unusual to find in research we do. I was surprised to see the same effect replicate so strongly in the second study even when we used a methodology that made seeing the effect less likely (i.e., men and women interspersed, no questions about appearance at all).

Did the women who participated in the study fare any better than the men, or was this bias held equally by both genders?

Both genders showed the effect, which lines up with reactions to appearance being something non conscious or automatic in nature. In fact women showed the effect somewhat more than men in the second study, which may suggest women pick up more on feminine cues (because they are more familiar with performing femininity) or make more meaning of how a woman might choose to present herself. However we only saw this in one study, so it should be interpreted with caution. But I firmly believe this is a phenomenon that happens for men and women alike.

What do you think the implications of this study are for women in STEM fields?

Unfortunately women in STEM fields may not be taken as seriously as a legitimate scientist, engineer, etc.—at least not initially–if they present themselves in a feminine manner (see story of Isis Wenger behind #iLookLikeAnEngineer campaign). I don’t think that means women should mask their femininity or conform to a masculine status quo. But I do think it means they may encounter additional challenges by presenting in a feminine way.

Do you have any ideas how we might be able to fight this sort of systemic unconscious societal bias?

I think exposure to the variety and diversity within STEM is the best antidote. The #iLookLikeAnEngineer campaign is a super exciting campaign that I think has a lot of potential to change the way people view engineering. The campaign emphasizes that you don’t have to look a certain way to be in engineering, and you certainly can look quite feminine. Check it out on Twitter. The more that people in STEM can genuinely express who they are and celebrate that you don’t have to conform to a specific look, the more that our image of STEM will change to be more inclusive.

The results of the study seem kind of depressing, is their any good news regarding gender biases?

Interestingly, people were not more likely to say men were scientists than women on average—it seems like people are sensitive about being sexist or expressing gender bias. What’s problematic with this femininity bias is that it’s more subtle—people may not be aware of it and it may be more beyond their control. Just because people believe feminine women are less likely to be scientists, or that they are, for example, surprised to encounter a feminine female engineer, that doesn’t necessarily mean they also find feminine women less competent or capable. In fact they may think “more power to them!”

That is a question we are continuing to investigate—does femininity erroneously convey information about “ability” in STEM fields? In general, I think we need to focus on changing the image of engineering overall; one interesting finding is attractive people—men and women alike—were deemed less likely to be scientists. That’s crazy! So men too may be harmed by the notion that you can’t be a scientist and be good looking at the same time.

Link to Study