The Consequences of Being Girly in STEM

And before you read any further… none of these things are your fault. Wear pink or blue, put ribbons in your hair or get an undercut, wear dresses or pants, be polite, quiet, bold or brash. As female scientists we suffer harmful stereotypes regardless. So be yourself.

Does she look like a scientist? Photo by  Kimson Doan  on  Unsplash .

Does she look like a scientist? Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash.

You may be told that you don’t look like a scientist.

In evaluating a series of portraits, research participants perceived more feminine women to be less likely to be scientists.

Unfortunately, being “girly” or feminine is stereotypically perceived as running counter to or not being attainable in conjunction with success in STEM fields. On top of that, challenging stereotypes by being a “feminine” scientist can create hostility, which becomes an added burden for girls and women in STEM, particularly for those who are or are perceived to be more “visible” (just see the #distractinglysexy hashtag).

The portrayal of women in STEM is very narrow in popular media. Female scientists are often portrayed as geeks or “unicorns” - rare, mythical creatures. This contributes to perceptions that female scientists, especially highly successful ones, are an exception to the norm, which reinforces rather than helps break gender science stereotypes. Successful, brilliant, normal, friendly, down-to-earth female scientists who occasionally wear pink, enjoy fashion and like “girly” things as much as the next woman… well, they just aren’t given the air time or media attention that stereotype-reinforcing examples are. Or, their media portrayals are twisted to fit a gendered stereotype.

You may be objectifed.

Objectification is a form of dehumanization, a process that often occurs for scientists and especially female scientists. We can fight this together by displaying the diverse faces of female scientists, the diverse ways in which we can be female scientists, our diverse motivations for pursuing science, our diverse personalities, etc. But it takes many to stand up with the one.

“We hypothesized that focusing on a woman's, but not a man's, appearance should induce objectification [...] In three studies, females, but not males, were perceived as less competent [...] and less warm and moral [...] when participants were instructed to focus on their appearance.” - From Women to Objects, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011

You may be told that your appearance is “distracting”.

This is another form of discrimination and the outcome of objectification of women scientists.

“While working in biotech, one woman with a PhD was told by a woman in HR to go shop at a menswear store (lots of plaid shirts, chinos) so she could dress more like the guys and ‘fit in.’  [...] A graduate student recently told me she had taken to wearing baggy clothes all the time because of the continual harassment and commentary about her looks. The stereotyping - looks, clothes, make-up, while appearing perhaps trivial and minimal - actually has very serious and real impacts.” - Imogene Coe, Professor, Chemistry & Biology, Ryerson University

You may have to remind people that you are a scientist.

You may sadly have to use scientific competence cues in your communication efforts, in order to be perceived as both feminine and STEM-competent.

I’m not above breaking out the “Dr.” in the signature line of my e-mails or in introducing myself. From lab coats to our titles, we may have to use our competence cues to overcome stereotypical perceptions of women as warmer but not as competent as men.

You may have to buck masculine norms in your field.

Sexualized humor and sexist remarks are all too common in male-dominated STEM workplaces. Work schedules and promotion processes don’t take into account the childbearing and child rearing responsibilities that unequally fall to women. But women should not have to adapt to a “masculine culture” to be successful in STEM.

“We show how female students need to position themselves as nonfeminine and strive to become ‘one of the boys’ whereas male students are restricted to positioning a certain kind of masculinity to become recognized.” - Being a woman in a man’s place or being a man in a woman’s place: Insights into students’ experiences of science and engineering at university

Your authority may be questioned…

… But only by those with strong gender-science stereotype beliefs.

“To maintain the stereotype that women are bad at math, women who succeed in STEM are instead stereotyped as unfeminine.” - My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls, 2012

You may be perceived as less competent in STEM skills, based on gender-STEM stereotypes, but more self-confident and warmer.

Women are generally perceived as warmer (more moral, likeable, honest, friendly) than men, although this isn’t always the case for female professionals. However, the warmth boosts that friendly, relatable women generally receive can be beneficial for female scientists communicating with the public, and may come with feminine appearance and friendly facial expressions.

You may be perceived as vain and superficial.

But you do this for yourself, not for others. Be girly when you want to be girly - don’t “smile” when they tell you to.

“[C]onstructions of femininity as lacking in substance (‘concerns with appearance’) and dim (‘not so smart’) [...] contrast to (masculine) science as difficult and profound (‘requires a lot of focussed concentration’, needing ‘pre-prepared knowledge’ rather than ‘skills’).” - Femininity, science, and the denigration of the girly girl, 2017

Your research and science communication efforts may be perceived as more interesting.

“We investigated the traits that engender interest in a scientist’s work, and those that create the impression of a ‘good scientist’ who does high-quality research. Apparent competence and morality were positively related to both interest and quality judgments, whereas attractiveness boosted interest but decreased perceived quality.” - Facial appearance affects science communication, PNAS

You’ll be a role model.

By being visibly “girly” in STEM, you may begin to break down stereotypes that associate STEM with being masculine. It’s important, however, to communicate your struggles and your journey honestly, to be a relatable and attainable role model for others. As a “girly” STEMinist, other women who learn about gender bias in STEM will better identify with and relate to you. This is why education of gender-science stereotypes and gender bias is key.

“Some research suggests that role models who represent an unattainable standard make audiences feel threatened rather than inspired (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997) perhaps this is particularly true for adolescents viewing doubly counterstereotypic role models [who are both feminine and highly successful in STEM].” - My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls, 2012

Overly feminine science role models may demotivate young students (Betz & Sekaquaptewa, 2012), unless they are also expressly relatable (sharing life-work balance lessons, struggles and how they overcame them, etc.)

“Girls are already put to high standards in terms of beauty, that it’s seen as almost unattainable to achieve both that and intellectual prowess or scientific achievement.” - David Miller

You may be judged more harshly for speaking out or making mistakes than male peers.

This goes for women in STEM period. Female scientists may also be judged particularly harshly for speaking out against bias and discrimination.

You may be pushed away from high-risk high-reward research.

You may be pushed toward supporting positions within your STEM field and other “soft” roles and careers, science communication, etc.

Stay your course.

You’ll help break down stereotypes.

You’ll help break down stereotypes that doing STEM is associated with being male, or that STEM skills are masculine. In a forthcoming study, the #ScientistsWhoSelfie research team shows that seeing self-portraits of female scientists on Instagram can help break down gender-science stereotypes or the perception that scientists are usually men.

You are changing what it means to be in a STEM career.

You’ll help other “girly girls” better see themselves in STEM.

“[U]nderpinning construction of science careers as ‘clever’/‘brainy’, ‘not nurturing’ and ‘geeky’ sits in opposition to the girls’ self-identifications as ‘normal’, ‘girly’, ‘caring’ and ‘active’. Moreover, we suggest that this lack of fit is exacerbated by social inequalities, which render science aspirations potentially less thinkable for working-class girls in particular.” - ‘Not girly, not sexy, not glamorous’: primary school girls’ and parents’ constructions of science aspirations, 2013

What are your consequences for being girly or feminine in STEM? Let me know here or on Twitter, @fromthelabbench.