People Deem Feminine Women Less Likely to Be Scientists

Photo credit: Viviana Parra Noriega. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.
Photo credit: Viviana Parra Noriega. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

A paper published in the journal Sex Roles, reports that people think that the more feminine a woman is, the less likely she is to be a scientist. The same stereotype holds true for attractive people of either gender, the paper reports. Ugh.

The paper, “But You Don’t Look Like a Scientist!: Women Scientists With Feminine Appearance Are Deemed Less Likely to Be Scientists,” was published online Feb. 5. The paper was authored by Sarah Banchefsky, Bernadette Park and Charles M. Judd of the University of Colorado Boulder; and Jacob Westfall of the University of Texas at Austin. I’ll be offering an overview of the work here, but I urge you to read the article yourself.

These findings are disappointing – frankly, they make me sad. But there is a science communication issue here, so I want to talk about it.

The Studies

The paper reports on the results of two studies, so we’ll take them in turn.

In the first study (Study One), 51 U.S. adults – 25 women, 26 men – participated in an online experiment. Participants were shown 80 photographs of tenure-track faculty in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) departments at well-regarded U.S. universities. Half the photos were of women and half were of men; all of the faculty were white. Study participants were not told that the photos were of STEM professors.

For each photograph, participants were asked to rate the person’s appearance in three categories: masculine to feminine; likable to unlikable; and unattractive to attractive. The ratings were done on a seven-point scale.

Participants were also told to estimate the likelihood that the person in the photo was a scientist, on a six-point scale. Participants were then asked to estimate the likelihood that the person was an “early childhood educator” (i.e., a teacher).

In the second study (Study Two), there were 213 participants (129 women, 84 men). Study Two was very similar to Study One, but there were several differences. First, some study participants saw the photographs in blocks. For example, participants might rate all of the men, then rate all of the women. Other study participants had the photos mixed, where photos were presented in a random order.

Study Two also did not ask the participants to rate the appearance of the people in the photographs. Instead, study participants were asked to rate each person on: the likelihood that the person in the photo was a journalist; the likelihood that they were a scientist; and the likelihood that they were a teacher. The researchers used the “femininity” and “attractiveness” ratings from Study One when evaluating the data from Study Two.

Results

In both studies, the more feminine a woman looked, the less likely she was to be considered a scientist – and the more likely she was to be deemed a teacher or journalist. Femininity or masculinity did not influence whether study participants thought a man was a scientist. (If you want to look at the stats on the results, you’ll have to read the paper – I’m not going into that level of detail here.)

The paper also reports that both studies found women and men “who were judged as more attractive were deemed less likely to be scientists and more likely to be non-scientists.”

Sigh.

So What?

This paper – even accounting for the study’s limitations regarding sample size and racial homogeneity – drives home something I’ve said before: the way we present science and scientists matters. When people think of scientists they often think of old white guys. That’s changing, but we’re still not close to parity. And if young women feel that they would have to change who they are to fit into the scientific community, they are unlikely to want to become part of that community. I wrote about a relevant study on that earlier.

[Note: A lot of factors come into play in terms of the lack of diversity in STEM fields, including a lack of mentorship, higher ed and workplace culture, etc. But I think perceptions of science and scientists (or engineering and engineers, etc.) are pieces of the puzzle.]

So, what to do?

The authors of the paper have some thoughts on that, which are worth sharing.

“We would recommend that scientists who are already established within STEM fields strive to celebrate and highlight existing diversity within STEM — both between social categories (e.g., different genders or racial groups) but also within social categories .… [W]omen’s interest in STEM may … be thwarted by the undue perception that women scientists cannot express femininity. The #iLookLikeAnEngineer campaign exemplifies a marketing strategy that challenges stereotypes about what engineers look like …. Given that exposure to counter-stereotypic STEM role models has been shown to increase men and women’s interest in STEM, such a strategy should benefit men and women and boys and girls alike.”

Hear, hear.

There is no single solution to this issue. But there is clearly a need for widespread, creative communication efforts designed to influence the way people see and think about scientists. If you’re reading this blog, you presumably have an interest in science communication. And I think it behooves everyone involved in science communication to think about this issue and try to identify ways – large and small – that we can contribute to positive change. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know we should be looking for them.

One note in closing: the authors of the paper make an excellent point about portraying gender diversity versus sexualization.

“There is an important distinction between portraying naturalistic variation in women’s gendered appearance in STEM versus extreme, objectified or sexualized portrayals of feminine women scientists. The latter approach to fostering women’s interest in STEM has proven to be ineffective. For example, the European Commission launched a campaign entitled ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ in an effort to convey that science can be feminine. However, their promotional video, which was ultimately withdrawn due to criticism, featured young women strutting around the lab in high-heels and mini-skirts, playing with make-up and blowing kisses at test tubes as a male scientist observed them.”

Worth noting.

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