Feminine Scientists

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

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

‘Superhero’ Dethrones ‘Princess’ As Favorite Kids’ Costume

Kids are trading tiaras for capes in the latest national survey.

Every year, the National Retail Federation conducts a survey to determine the most popular Halloween costumes. After an eleven-year reign, ‘princess’ has been dethroned — by superheroes.

According to the survey “More than three million children will dress as their favorite action or superhero, 2.9 million will dress as their favorite princess and 2.5 million plan to dress as a cat, dog, bunny or other animal.”

no-princesses“Princesses don’t do a whole lot, their stories can only be reworked in so many ways. Girls have always loved adventure and being the heroine,” according to Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of Redefining Girly. “Girls have not changed. Instead marketers have gained a better understanding of who girls are and are no longer feeding them a gendered narrative.”

Wardy isn’t the only person who has noticed marketers are feeding girls a ‘gendered narrative.’ “I resent that the Disney Corporation has had such a far-reaching and lasting impact on children all over the world, redefining ‘girl’ as ‘princess,’ ” says Lori day, author of Her Next Chapter. “Girlhood has been branded. Perhaps finally the pendulum is swinging back.”

“It’s great to see this kind of change happening, but it didn’t happen overnight,” said Michele Sinisgalli-Yulo creator of the Princess Free Zone blog and brand. “Many voices have contributed to changing how companies exploit gender when marketing to children, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

As Wardy puts it, “There are many ways to be a girl. We’ve done princess to death, now girls want to show us other facets of their personalities.”

Especially if that facet wears a cape.

Most Popular Children’s Costumes

  1. Action/Superhero
  2. Princess
  3. Animal (Cat, Dog, Lion, Monkey, etc.)
  4. Batman Character
  5. Star Wars Character
  6. Tie: Witch AND DC Superhero (excl. Batman)
  7. Frozen Character (Anna, Elsa, Olaf)
  8. Marvel Superhero (excl. Spiderman)
  9. Zombie
  10. Spiderman

Children Demonstrate the Deep-Rooted Nature of Gender Bias

When I was a child, there was a riddle:

A father and a son are in a horrible accident. The father dies, and the son is rushed to the hospital. The surgeon rushes in, but suddenly stops, saying, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.” How is this possible?

30 years ago, this routinely stumped children, because they could not imagine a world where a woman was an accomplished surgeon. It served as both a parlour trick and a cultural marker the showed how far we still had to go in the quest for gender equality.

The premise of that riddle has been brilliantly updated by the MullenLowe Group, in the above video, an ad for Inspiring the Future, a nonprofit that connects people from the business world with public schools and universities. I was hoping that by now, gender barriers had fallen in the  minds of children.

Sadly, the new riddle seems to be, “Will we ever be able to protect our children from these damaging stereotypes?”

Report: More Women Own Videogame Consoles Than Men in US

While conventional wisdom has told us for years that video games are a male-dominated past-time, reality is rearing its ugly head and challenging that sexist trope.

According to a recent Pew Research Study, 42% of American women own a video game console, but only 37% of men do. So the potential market for console video games for women is actually larger for women than men, but the market has not yet adjusted to this new reality.

It will be interesting to watch in the coming years how the market will shift to take advantage of these rapidly changing demographics, and who will succeed in making those adaptions, and who will be left behind clinging to outdated notions about women, technology and gaming.

Pew Research Study

TEDx: Girls Can Be Their Own Superheroes

John Marcotte, founder of Heroic Girls, challenges the audience to look beyond what is labeled as “girly” or “feminine” to explore how such labels limit the potential of future generations.

The talk includes a clip from an earlier Heroic Girls video, Anya and Stella vs. Action Figures.

Studies and Research Cited