Future Tense

Lipstick and Nail Files Won’t Draw Women Into Science

It’s much more complicated than that.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, March 27, Future Tense and New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program will host From Nowhere to Nobels: Pathways to Success for Women in STEM in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Still from Science: It's a Girl Thing
A scene from “Science: It’s a Girl Thing”

Image via European Commission

At 3 years old, my astute little niece has already glommed on to the perception that pursuing both motherhood and a career in the hard sciences is implausible.

She had told me recently that she wanted to be a mommy when she grows up. I applauded her on this goal and suggested that she consider becoming both an astronaut and a mommy. Her response was to tell me I’m silly. “You can’t be an astronaut and a mommy,” she said, grinning at my seemingly ridiculous suggestion.

I’ve been neither an astronaut nor mother thus far in my lifetime, but I can see the difficulty that each of these roles might pose. What vexes me is not the perception that pursuing both concurrently would be complicated but that the two roles are viewed as incompatible—so incompatible, in fact, that the idea quite literally drove an observant 3-year-old to giggles.

My niece didn’t arrive at these assumptions by herself. A number of researchers have found evidence to suggest that motherhood and careers in the sciences are widely viewed as incompatible. (Interestingly, many studies actually show that women with children are even more productive in the workplace than women without children.) Beliefs that motherhood and science careers don’t mesh are a shame, indeed, given Census Bureau data that by 2010, some 80 percent of women had become mothers by their early 40s.

Perceptions of mother-scientist role incompatibility represent only a piece of the puzzle regarding women’s underrepresentation in the sciences—just one-quarter of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce is female, according to the Department of Commerce. Some social scientists have examined this problem, asking whether femininity and STEM are compatible. The answer seems dependent in part on whose definition of femininity you’re looking at.

In a provocative piece by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa for example, femininity was defined as wearing pink and espousing a love of fashion magazines. The researchers found that middle-school girls who viewed an article about feminine girls who excel in STEM were less interested and less confident of their abilities in math than girls who viewed a similar article about the STEM talents of gender-neutral girls (girls who wore dark clothing and glasses and enjoyed reading in general). Another interesting study—this one by Lora Park, Ariana Young, Jordan Troisi, and Rebecca Pinkus—showed that when engaged in romantic activities, women (but not men) reported less positive attitudes toward STEM and lower intentions to pursue STEM fields.

The European Commission must not have read these pieces when they produced the 2012 gem “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” a campaign that seemingly integrated images from women’s fashion magazines with images that represent the sciences. The campaign, which reminded me of Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” video, was better when parodied on a $13 budget by a group of women neuroscientists who—shockingly—found the original demeaning to women. Replacing the “I” in science with a tube of lipstick won’t suddenly inspire a high-school sophomore to explore mechanical engineering.

More eye-rolling and gnashing of teeth ensued when Goldman Sachs gave away feminine swag at a women’s coding conference at Harvard. The freebies—a nail file and a mirror—suggested to at least some women that Goldman Sachs was promoting negative stereotypes about women. As one attendee quipped, “It’s sitting there, in my cabinet, waiting for my nails to chip after a long day of coding.”

But do all efforts to feminize STEM backfire?

Some research suggests that women are more likely to choose careers that align with feminine values of caregiving and nurturing. For example, the Department of Labor reported that in 2008, a whopping 92 percent of registered nurses were women, and according to the National Center for Education Information, in 2011, 84 percent of public school teachers were women.

What happens when feminine caregiving values are tied to STEM careers? Research from the National Academy of Engineering shows that both boys and girls (and men and women) respond positively to messages that engineers make a world of a difference. Girls had similar responses to these messages in a study by William Colvin, Sarah Lyden and Bernardo Leon de la Barra. The researchers led a four-week-long series of STEM workshops for 45 middle-school girls that emphasized altruism and communal success as central goals of engineers. Prior to the workshops, students were asked to draw pictures of engineers, and only six students drew pictures of women. After the workshops concluded, 18 of the girls drew female engineers.

That’s promising. But I don’t think promoting the opportunities to do social good in STEM is a magic bullet for increasing women’s engagement.

I recently wrapped up my dissertation, which addresses whether promoting entrepreneurship as a career pathway for supporting communities could attract more women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, entrepreneurship and the STEM fields both suffer from low participation among women. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation reports that only about a third of all entrepreneurs are women—only a little better than the proportion of STEM professionals who are women. In alignment with Colvin’s work, I expected to discover that women would be more attracted to entrepreneurship when it was perceived as a career choice that would allow them to make a difference.

In my research, I showed women two brochures about entrepreneurship: one that presented the field as an opportunity to do good and one that used traditional entrepreneurship language and imagery. To my surprise, the women who viewed the latter brochure were more likely to report entrepreneurial intentions.

Perplexed at how to explain these findings, I sought feedback from a number of colleagues and friends. One who is more socially conservative had an instant explanation: “Of course! It’s a guy thing!” he said. In his mind, only women who buy into guy culture would want to be an entrepreneur, whether or not doing so would support communities.

There’s something to be said for that. If I am a feminine woman and I know that entrepreneurship (or STEM or whatever male-dominated field) is in fact a guy thing, why would a single brochure change my mind and make me feel like it’s a space where I can succeed? Solving the women in STEM problem—and the women in entrepreneurship problem—will require more than lipstick and lip service about caring.

Assuming all women will respond to feminine career paths reduces the strategy to nothing more than employing stereotypes. Furthermore, messages that simultaneously promote femininity and STEM are harmful to women when femininity is narrowly defined as sexiness. Obviously, women offer a great deal more to STEM than “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” would lead audiences to believe.

The toy industry has jumped on the bandwagon of using feminized science and math toys to promote girls’ participation in STEM fields. For example, recently, the American Institute of Architects endorsed Mattel’s architect Barbie, while Lego launched its “Friends” series of toys; these allow girls to build veterinarian clinics, inventor’s workshops, and more with pink blocks, while playing with attractive Lego dolls.

I applaud the efforts of the toy industry to rethink audience and product for STEM toys. (I myself bought my godchild a Roominate.) At the same time, it is too early to tell whether providing girls with pink blocks and attractive dolls with STEM-related storylines will change the demographics of STEM professionals. There simply isn’t enough evidence.

My 3-year-old niece isn’t even old enough to play with such toys, and she already thinks she knows that astronauts and mommies don’t go together. “Violet,” I told her, “let me tell you about the first woman in space,” but she had already sashayed in her pink play tutu into the other room.