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Study: Feminizing STEM Role Models Turns Off Girls

The push to promote more "feminine" role models for science, technology, engineering and math fields—think computer engineer Barbie with her pink laptop—may backfire with middle school girls, according to a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study comes in an already-grim week for girls in STEM. Among multiple closing science achievement gaps in the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gap between boys' and girls' average scores widened from four points in 2009 to five points in 2011. In states like Mississippi, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the gender gap swelled to eight points.

That's still small compared to the 20-to-30-point gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers, or the equally large divide in performance between wealthy and poor students. However, while both girls and boys performed on average at the "basic" level on the NAEP (149 for girls versus 154 for boys in 2011), there were twice as many boys as girls nationally performing at the highest level in science (2 percent versus 1 percent, respectively).

Any way you slice it, that's disappointing news for the educators and STEM advocates who have been trying to coax more girls to enter science fields. Many recent programs have tried to do so by promoting more women role models in STEM fields; for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has papered its recent conferences with posters of women scientists. University of Michigan psychology researchers Diana E. Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa have found that might be a trickier approach than it seems.

In the first experiment, 144 6th and 7th grade girls read articles about three successful female university students. In some cases these were overtly "girly," wearing pink clothes and make-up and saying they like to read fashion magazines, while in other cases the students wore dark clothes and glasses and simply said they liked to read. The role models also either were specifically described as successful in a STEM field, math, engineering or biochemistry, or were reported as generally successful—for example called a "freshman star."

The researchers found girls who read about the overtly female role models actually reduced the students' reported interest, perceived ability and future expectations in math, and they showed less interest in taking math classes in high school and college than girls who read about role models in more neutral clothing or with non-STEM-specific achievements.

The second study, of 42 6th and 7th grade girls, repeated the prior experiment but first identified how much they liked science and how strongly the girls believed women could be both feminine and successful in STEM careers. The researchers found girls who already disliked science or felt disconnected from it were even more likely to reject the feminine STEM role model than girls who liked science already.

"Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalion-style feminine makeovers," the researchers concluded, "may do more harm than good. A more fine tuned approach is needed to benefit girls with different levels of STEM interest and to protect current STEM self-concepts."

Previous research has suggested that drawing students' attention to sharp gender differences, such as the pink clothes and fashion magazines, may exacerbate students' gender biases. However, in an email, Betz and Sekaquaptewa said that they don't think that's the problem in this case. Rather, they believe the cognitive clash of two gender stereotypes—images of a successful feminine woman and a successful scientist—can convince girls who already feel disconnected from science that they will never measure up to "counter-stereotypic success."

"The bottom line, though, is that this research suggests that we don't need to make role models or STEM fields 'girly' to motivate girls," they told me. "Instead, we should turn to what we already know makes a helpful role model. Girls have to feel like they can relate to or identify with the female scientists they see and learn about. ... Female role models should also be shown as actively involved in science rather than passive observers or tokens: show women really using equipment and conducting research. Teaching girls about what scientists and engineers really do, and especially highlighting their social usefulness and communal aspects, has been found to be motivating for girls."

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