Will girls get more interested in science if we feminize it, make it more stereotypically "girly"? Not really, say the authors of a new study out of the University of Michigan. In fact, such efforts might even do more harm than good.
Girls often lose interest in math and science when they're in middle school, leading some to speculate that feminizing those subject might help turn things around. The U of M researchers put this idea to the test, showing middle schools successful women displaying traditionally feminine characteristics such as makeup and pink clothes. Girls exposed to such role models reported a decrease of interest in math and science.
Girls were more motivated by images of female scientists dressed in more gender-neutral clothes, wearing glasses or reading. The study's authors speculate that "girls not interested in math and science saw simultaneous success in both domains at least attainable, suggesting that their lack of motivation was related to the perceived unlikelihood of combining femininity and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] success."
In other words, traditionally feminine images carry so much baggage that they erode girls' interest in STEM.
So should we demonize makeup and the color pink? Certainly not, unless we want fuel the very stereotypes we strive against. Yet if the study is right (and we should always treat single studies like this one with caution), then "feminizing" math and science in the most superficial sense may not be the way to go.
Yet let's not conclude that we should therefore present math and science in the same way to girls and boys. Study after study has shown that girls are more likely to respond to STEM fields when they see how much value work in those fields can bring to society. Concern for the greater good is not an exclusively feminine trait, mind you. But a focus on the social impact of STEM might affect girls more strongly than visions of pink dresses do.