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Posted on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

University of Michigan study finds feminine scientists unlikely to motivate girls

By Kellie Woodhouse



It happened when Hilary Clinton announced her bid for president. It's likely happened to Mary Sue Coleman, the University of Michigan's first female president, as she carries out her administrative duties and, according to a new study, it will probably happen to most successful and feminine leaders in the science and engineering fields.

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).

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 3 a.m.

The subjects in this study were only in the sixth and seventh grade. Maybe they thought that the women who were "dressed up" were sure to be doing something boring. Maybe they thought the women who were "gender neutral" looked like they were focused on doing something that interested them and must therefore be doing something that was interesting. How do older teens react to the same images? They may see things differently.


Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 12:56 a.m.

I consider myself to be a rather successful scientist. I have a balance of fashion and professionalism. I wear makeup and nice shoes. Here's another stereotype-breaker while we are at it: I'm also very athletic. You can do whatever you want in life when you have confidence and support. It starts with the parents instilling that in their children.


Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 12:52 a.m.

Women scientists do not wear 4-inch heels in the lab.They dress for comfort at work. Representing them otherwise is hokey and demeaning. It is off-putting to an intelligent youngster. Contrariwise, most of the same women scientists can be glamorous in appropriate circumstances. What this "study" illustrates is the cluelessness of the "researchers" about the world of science.


Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 2:40 a.m.

It also shows the cluelessness of the researchers to the infinite spectrum of feminine and masculine characteristics. Their attempt to define the magic of what makes someone sexually attractive by in terms of only clothing, shoes, and makeup is ridiculous. If I thought all professionals wore spike heels, I would not choose to be a professional either. Sarah Palin wore spike heels I think , and I will only wear comfortable shoes. Which one of us is more feminine? Which one of us is most nutty? I hope I am "pretty when I'm angry." cause this definition of feminine makes me angry!


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 10:29 p.m.

Studies with such low numbers of respondents are not valid anyway.

Jake C

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 3:14 p.m.

Do you say that having a scientific background? I've done scientifically valid studies with well under 100 participants, and this one has 144. "Valid" has a very specific meaning when it comes to studies like this.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 9:12 p.m.

We, as a society, need to encourage both girls and boys to pursue careers in science, mathematics and technology. Otherwise we will continue our decline as an economic power in the world. We need to stop exporting our high-tech jobs to China, India and other countries. If there are good paying career opportunities, people will pursue them.

Dog Guy

Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 9 p.m.

As movie star Hedy Lamarr said when informed that she would receive the 1997 Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for her contributions to the field of spread-spectrum technology in the early 1940's, "It's damn well about time!"

Unusual Suspect

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 1:09 a.m.

That's "Hedley."


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 8:50 p.m.

Sounds like the researchers cannot figure out the feminine mind.


Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 2:18 p.m.

My comment got deleted. Read the research on men. Quite interesting.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 8:25 p.m.

a better conclusion to this article would have been that attractive females in male dominated fields become discouraged by all the inappropriate attention, interaction, and advice from their male colleagues and bosses while they contend with pursuing careers.

Jake C

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 3:10 p.m.

Considering this study only interviewed middle schoolers, that actually would have been a very bad conclusion to this particular study.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:57 p.m.

Kellie, thanks for the interesting article. My wife and I are in the sciences, and we encourage our kids to go into science and engineering as well. It's always been a puzzle why it's so hard to get kids interested. OTOH, the comments here remind me why I mostly don't bother with commenting any more.


Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 11:02 a.m.

Cinna - oh no, I expect people to disagree with me. I concluded had an agenda, and I was just on the wrong side of it. If I had ever made a comment like yours, they would have yanked it in a second as "snarky". See, they left yours up. I decided it was better to just stop wasting my time and money and hope we eventually get something better.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 10:44 p.m.

Read the book Growing A Girl. You will keep yours on track. We never went for that pink stuff and frill. Strictly down the middle climbing trees and taking on the boys. I hate glass ceilings, don't you?


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 9:23 p.m.

KJM I feel the same way when people dont agree with me.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:56 p.m.

Here's a link to the actual journal article. The full text may not be available to non-subscribers. UM subscribes, so if you access the site from the UM network you can download the pdf. The primary author, Ms. Betz, is a PhD student in psychology: The second author is Ms. Betz' advisor, Professor Denise Sekaquaptewa:


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:36 p.m.

Sounds like a lot of tax dollars down the toilet.

Jimmy McNulty

Wed, Apr 25, 2012 : 11:11 a.m.

There is nothing in the article stating where the research funding was coming from, only that was "a series of U-M studies." It could be privately funded.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 10:43 p.m.

This is called rehashing an old story to make new. Research has shown time and again the same thing this story has shown and rehashed again. Girls go down hill in middle school because boys play a factor that this article failed to mention. Mine loves science and hates math. But does excel in other things. Goes without saying. Tax dollars spent on something I already knew.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 9:21 p.m.

Thats what I got out of the story.

David Frye

Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:35 p.m.

Seriously, some information about the authors, title, and publication would be useful. From what I can tell, this is the study: "My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls" by Denise Sekaquaptewa and Diana Betz, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, March 27, 2012.

Kellie Woodhouse

Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:31 p.m.

Readers: The descriptions of how feminine and non-feminine female scientists were conveyed to students were taken directly from the study release. Additional information about the study can be found here: As always, thanks for reading.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:14 p.m.

Well, I sure I hope I am misinterpreting this research. But if I'm not, it's really offensive that "excelling" in feminity is the same as wearing make up, pink dresses, etc., which conjures up connotations of acting powerless and childish in order to manipulate others. Maybe if they showed someone looking professional, calm and capable, it would resonate with a powerful, and true image of the feminine as positive, forward looking, collaborative and supportive of progress! No wonder young women are reacting more positively to the professional looking woman of science - it shows that they have common sense! This article make it sounds like looking and acting like a professional is inconsistent with being an "excellent" woman, and as a scientist and engineer who has been in the profession for over 30 years, and is also a mother and considers myself to be "feminine" without being "powerless," this article, taken at surface value, is both silly and offensive.


Tue, Apr 24, 2012 : 7:01 p.m.

Please provide a link to this study or at least a reference. There is a lot of conclusion in this article, packed on top of not much real information about the study.