Sep 12, 2012

Barbie Science

One of my favourite science bloggers on Twitter, Christie Wilcox ("NerdyChristie"), retweeted a story from Scientific American last night which had been picked up by biologist Miriam Goldstein.
(As you can see, attributing stories found via Twitter can get quite complex)

The Trouble With Barbie Science
Recruiting women into the sciences with girly images can backfire

READ this if you have girls, or are a girl, and RELATE.

With all the best intentions in the world, there are attempts being made to attract girls to "STEM" (science, technology, engineering and maths) using "girly" aesthetics. The intention is not evil but to get girls away from thinking "that's boring" or "that's a boy thing".

Any parent (that's all of us, right?) who has sighed in frustration at the "pinkification" of everything for girls, will probably be gritting their teeth a little by now.

On Twitter, Miriam Goldstein compared the pinkification of science to [unintentionally] saying to girls: "See girls? It's OK to be smart as long as you conform to the feminine ideal!"

But not only is the message going out unintentionally problematic - it appears not to work.

Two scientists ran a study gauging the impact on girls' interest in STEM after viewing different types of female role model: "girly" STEM women, non-"girly" STEM women, "girly" other women and non-"girly" other women.
You may or may not be surprised to hear the outcome of the experiment. Girls became LEAST interested in STEM after seeing the "girly" STEM models.

The scientists' conclusion was that the "Barbie Scientist" role models were too daunting - being super-smart and successful PLUS girly and sexy is just too damn high a bar to reach. Girls see this and doubt they can do it, so they abandon any interest.

I absolutely agree with this interpretation. I have never articulated it like that, but have had the same heart-sinking feeling myself on occasion and hesitate to present some of these types of images to my girls for the same reason. It's the same reason I feel conflicted over Barbies with cool careers.

Between the ages of 5 and 35, girls are swimming in pressure to be hot. Not just pretty - but glamorous and sexy and confident and flirty, as well as organised, healthy and cool. Once upon a time, applying oneself to "neutral" or "tomboy" pursuits was a way to get a pass on some of this pressure. No longer.

So... You mean I STILL have to be sexy even if I'm successful and super-smart? Do I NEVER get a break from this stuff?

Poor girls!

The only good thing? I sense we're at a tipping point on the pinkification thing. Change, at last, is a-coming.

Cartoon by Zack Weiner at SMBC Comics (embedding allowed)

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