The first study, of 144 sixth- and seventh-grade girls, were rated as ”STEM-identified” if they listed mathematics, science or both among their three favourite subjects. Participants then read magazine interviews about three female university students displaying ‘feminine characteristics’ (in the press release, “wearing make-up and pink clothes, likes fashion magazines”) or ‘gender-neutral traits’ (“wearing dark-colored clothes and glasses, likes reading”). These university students also displayed either ‘STEM success’ (“described as an engineering star, praised by a chemistry professor”) or ‘general school success’ (“described as a freshman star, praised by professor from an unspecified field”). Following this, participants completed a self-evaluation of mathematics skills and a questionnaire about their future plans to take high school mathematics.
The press release reports that the researchers found that the feminine STEM role models “decreased girls’ self-rated math interest, ability and short-term success expectations” and had “a negative impact on girls’ future plans to study math among girls who did not identify with STEM”.
The second study, of 42 participants, “investigated why girls who disliked math and science were least motivated by feminine STEM role models”.
The press release describes the findings:
Replicating past research, this work suggests that role models whose success seems unobtainable can make young students feel threatened rather than motivated. But even if they see feminine STEM role models, girls who do not care for math or science might not be motivated to like these fields.
“Rather than opening these girls’ minds to new possibilities, the feminine STEM role model seemed to shut them further,” said Sekaquaptewa, U-M professor of psychology.
The overall study raises the possibility that role models who counter more than one competing stereotype (women can be good at math or be feminine, but not both) are less effective than role models who just counter one (e.g., a typical woman who excels in STEM). The researchers also say that young girls may see their success as difficult to emulate if they believe that women in STEM are “too good” to be role models.
Press release: My fair physicist? Feminine math, science role models do not motivate girls.
Paper: My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls. Social Psychological and Personality Science.