University of Michigan study finds feminine scientists unlikely to motivate girls
No matter how quickly they can dissect the quantum theory, women are often judged by how they dress and how feminine they appear.
And according to a series of U-M studies, the judging starts early— as early as sixth and seventh grade.
Researchers found that middle school-aged girls signaled little interest in science, technology, engineering and math when presented with successful female role models who specialized in those fields and displayed feminine characteristics, such as wearing makeup and dressing in pink clothing.
By contrast, successful female scientists portrayed in a gender neutral manner —wearing glasses, dressing in dark clothing and reading— had a greater motivational effect on the students, the study found.
The study interviewed 144 female middle schoolers and found that most girls presented with feminine role models in the science and math fields reported a decrease in interest and ability in those fields.
Another study surveyed 42 young female students who said they didn't like math and found that these students were also least motivated by feminine scientists and engineers.
Researchers believe that excelling in both things —science and femininity— seemed unattainable to many youngsters, causing them to feel threatened rather than motivated.
"Rather than opening these girls' minds to new possibilities, the feminine (science and math) role model seemed to shut them further," said Denise Sekaquaptewa, U-M researcher and professor of psychology.
The researchers say their findings stretch beyond gender perception and tap into how young individuals can more easily stomach role models that counter one stereotype (a female excelling in math) rather than two competing ones (a female excelling in math and displaying feminine qualities).