Researchers at University of Colorado Boulder showed volunteers pictures of men and women, then asked them to judge each person how masculine or feminine they looked. Unbeknownst to the participants, all of the men and women featured in the photos were working scientists, but those women who were rated high for “feminine” traits like long hair or fine skin were generally assumed to be non-scientists.
“What we find is that for photos of men, there is no impact of gendered appearance,” said Sarah Banchefsky, a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology and lead author of the paper.
Can a woman without a lab coat still be a scientist?
Depending on how you look at the findings, these can be either surprising or obvious. Anyone who has taken a university course in engineering or hard physical sciences knows there’s a disproportionate amount of men attending classes. Since there are few women looking for a career in STEM, let alone attractive ones, it’s no wonder that participants were inclined to judge the women scientists with feminine traits featured in the photos as more likely to work as early childhood educators — a field 80 percent occupied by women.
“There are some accounts of women in STEM fields who not only feel like they can’t wear makeup or a dress, but also can’t talk about wanting to have kids,” Banchefsky said
The main conclusion of the study is that “people use variation in women’s feminine appearance as a cue to her career,” something that doesn’t necessarily happen for men. But is this a cultural bias or sexism? The authors of the study conclude “this work empirically validates claims made by some women in STEM that their belonging or aptitude in their career has been doubted simply due to their feminine appearance, and it contributes to research suggesting that appearance is more valued, scrutinized, and consequential for women than men.” They call this a new form of gender bias, but personally I feel this is just classical stereotype enforcement — one that starts at a very fragile age, as I’ll explain later.
The study does, however, start a very interesting discussion that’s worth debating. Feminity and women come together like a hand in a glove, just like masculinity and men for that matter. That’s common sense. But we have a problem when people almost unanimously agree that women have to be unfeminine to have a career in STEM. It does nothing but further exacerbate the gender gap because most woman will turn their back on a field where their can’t express their femininity.
A study from 2013 followed the science aspirations and career choice of 10–14-year-old children. After surveying 9,000 children and interviewing 92 children and 78 parents, the researchers conclude that a career in science is “largely ‘unthinkable’ for these girls because they do not fit with either their constructions of desirable/intelligible femininity nor with their sense of themselves as learners/students.”
“We argue that an underpinning 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,” the researchers of 2013 study wrote.
The following quote from one of the participants is most telling.
“I [a mother] said so how do you feel about science? And she [a daughter] said it’s really interesting, I love it, but don’t only geeks do it? [Int: Oh did she?] I now and this is why I wanted to get away a bit from her thinking that science is only for people I don’t know who…because she’s got this impression that only people who don’t have a life do science, which is terrible.”
Bernadette Park, professor of social psychology and neuroscience, says the recent U-C Boulder study highlights a troubling implications for the future of science in America.
“These feminine-looking women have ‘heard’ verbally or nonverbally that they don’t look like scientists, that they don’t belong in these male-dominated, highly prestigious fields,” Park said. “The message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high-school students and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science.”
I also feel this is a big problem, one with no obvious solution in sight. I also think, however, that society as a whole is coming to terms with the fact that there’s nothing stopping women from going into STEM if this is something they really want to do. If in the 1970s, men were 1.6 to 1.7 times as likely as women to later earn a STEM Ph.D., by the 1990s the gender gap had closed and both sexes are as likely to complete their education, according to a study featured previously on ZME Science.
But there’s still so much work ahead before we can eliminate sexism and racial bias from the academia.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.