When "I Can Be a Computer Engineer" Barbie made her toy store debut in 2010, enthusiastic women programmers bought the doll to display in their brogrammer-dominated workplaces and hoped her arrival—and the message that you can be fashionable and smart—would inspire girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math. But a new study by two University of Michigan psychology professors shows that presenting girls with stereotypically feminine STEM role models—like Barbie's pink laptop-toting bombshell—might actually discourage them from pursuing those fields.
The researchers had 144 tween girls read magazine-style profiles of female undergraduate STEM role models. Far from embracing a message that you can be "pretty" and a math whiz, girls with little existing interest in STEM that read stories about role models who were into hair, makeup, fashion, and the color pink ended up being less interested in pursuing a career in those fields. Indeed, the girls exposed to the ultra feminine role models ended up having less confidence in their math and science skills and their ability to succeed in STEM fields than their peers who read about successful female role models that weren't on "team pink."
We live in a world where reknowned engineer Limor Fried having her hair and makeup professionally done for the cover of Wired caused controversy—there's certainly a perception that women who are good at math and science are trying out for a pocket protector-wearing, all-female cast of Revenge of the Nerds. But while there's nothing wrong with wearing makeup or dressing in all pink if that's how you choose to express yourself, it makes sense that middle school-aged girls who are already feeling like they aren't good at STEM are going to be turned off by the added pressure of having to become both stereotypically girlie and math and science geniuses. Although brilliant mathematician Danica McKellar has done plenty of admirable work helping girls fall in love with math, this research suggests that her subtly sex-appeal fueled titles like Hot X: Algebra Exposed might not be the best way to engage them.
The researchers concluded that we need a "better understanding of feminine STEM figures aimed at motivating young girls." Last year when three girls swept the Google Science Fair the judges said they stood out because of their "intellectual curiosity, their tenaciousness and their ambition to use science to find solutions to big problems." Maybe emphasizing those qualities in girls instead of whether they like fashion and makeup will help boost their STEM confidence. After all, excelling as a scientist, engineer, or mathematician has nothing to do with your lip gloss.