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Feminine STEM role models failing in chemistry

Katrina Garnett - Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor

Katrina Garnett – Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor.
In 1998 she caused a stir with this glamorous ad of herself for her software company.


While The New York Times spotlights well-dressed women in the technology sector, the latest research reveals that the combination of femininity and success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers seem unattainable to young girls.

In “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls,” doctors studied the outcomes of middle school girls with feminine and traditional STEM role models. The study revealed that feminine STEM role models “…reduced middle school girls’ current math interest, self-rated ability, and success expectations…”

Let’s allow room for the fact that middle school kids in general are of a special ilk. However the factors that contribute to stress in middle school girls seems to provide insights into the results of the study.

Research by clinical psychologist Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler reveals:

  • Girls are also more stressed-out as they go through their school days because of social stress: they constantly monitor their relationships with peers and teachers.
  • Heightened worries about appearance—body image, clothing choices, and make-up—further exacerbate the daily stress of teen girls.

Both of these factors speak directly to the conditions in the study. The second point is particularly relevant because femininity is closely associated with attire and the female form. It’s no surprise that young girls are struggling to reconcile that beauty and intelligence co-exist.

Women interviewed in the NYTimes article touched briefly on the correlation between wearing a skirt and not being taken seriously because of it. Middle school girls do not live in a vacuum, and it’s safe to assume they’re aware of this on some level.

It’s a peculiar situation: women embracing their femininity in traditionally male-dominated career fields at the expense of young girls feeling less inspired by them, though they will ultimately clear the path to equality in those careers for young girls.

Is this a catch-22, or just a breakdown in communication between STEM role models and the girls they influence? It seems the answer to that question is the next step in the research.

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