My Fair Mathematician?

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

When Mathematics/STEM role models defy multiple stereotypes, their achievements appear unattainable to middle-school girls, who lose interest in STEM


I think there's more stigma attached to femininity in Mathematics/STEM than femaleness necessarily. 

Though girls and boys perform similarly in high-school math and science, girls are less likely to continue in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields-women receive only two-fifths of bachelor's degrees in physical sciences and mathematics, and just one-fifth in computer science and engineering.


Women and girls are often stereotyped as less capable in STEM, however when they do defy this stereotype and excel in these fields, they are perceived as less feminine. Such associations may dissuade girls from pursuing STEM, especially in middle school, when they are sensitive to expectations of femininity. Middle school-aged girls also begin to experience "stereotype threat" in math when their worries about fulfilling gendered stereotypes harm performance.


To counter perceptions that women in STEM are less feminine and encourage girls to pursue STEM careers, the Society of Women Engineers collaborated with Mattel to create a feminine Computer Engineer Barbie. However, such counter-stereotypical images may also be counterproductive, as these images make success seem doubly unlikely. If girls cannot imagine themselves as both feminine and successful in STEM, feminine STEM role models may feel unmatchable rather than motivating. 


Findings show that attempts to feminize STEM role models can have unintended negative consequences, discouraging middle-school girls with images of STEM success they view as unattainable. So, "Do being good at math and being girly go together?"


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More young women major in mathematics and STEM than when I attended school, those young women share stories of the sexism they had encountered in junior high and high school that seemed more than troubling: complaints about being belittled and teased by their classmates and teachers, worries about being perceived as unfeminine or uncool. If anything, the sexualization of global culture -our obsession with princesses and pornography, our romanticization of marriage, housekeeping, cooking, and motherhood - has created even more intense pressures on women who pursue a career that isn't perceived as typically female or whose requirements aren't compatible with the demands of traditional suburban life.


The same forces that caused me to feel isolated and unsure of myself continue to hem in young women today, acting like an invisible electrified field to discourage all but the thickest skinned from following their passion for science.


Girls are still steered away from or allowed to drop advanced courses in science and math. This is especially insidious given that girls who are good at science and math tend to be equally adept in the humanities; they find themselves praised for their talents as readers and writers and nudged toward so-called "people" fields, while boys who are gifted in science tend to be more narrow in their abilities and receive far more reinforcement for their high scores in calculus, physics, or computer science. Young women still enter varsity less prepared in math and science than their male classmates, only to be shocked by their failing grades and the rigorous demands of their majors. Rather than receive tutoring or support, such students are quickly and intentionally weeded out.



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