Feminine and ‘attractive’ women deemed less likely to be scientists
In her leading role for the 1993 blockbuster science-fiction movie, “Jurassic Park,” actor Laura Dern played a brilliant paleobotanist who looked as you might expect for someone who pokes through steaming piles of dinosaur poop — hiking boots, khaki shorts, and not particularly concerned about the state of her hair.
Fast forward to a 2015 sequel, “Jurassic World,” in which Bryce Dallas Howard plays the “senior assets manager” for the hubris-saturated park where cloned dinosaurs roam, and who spends much of the movie tottering through the jungle in high heels, a white skirt and, somehow, largely unmussed hair.
“I can’t recommend the latest movie,” says Sarah Banchefsky, a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the first movie, there was a young female computer hacker and an older female scientist, both very talented. Now, the female in charge of the park wears three-inch heels and is ultimately portrayed as incompetent.”
That devolution may well reflect a bias revealed in Banchefsky’s new paper, “But You Don’t Look Like a Scientist! Women Scientists with Feminine Appearance are Deemed Less Likely to be Scientists,” published in February in the journal Sex Roles and co-written with Jacob Westfall of the University of Texas at Austin department of psychology, and Bernadette Park and Charles M. Judd of CU-Boulder’s department of psychology and neuroscience.
“We knew there were accounts out there in the literature for decades that women (scientists) can’t wear skirts if they want to be taken seriously. They are seen as ‘too feminine,’” Banchefsky says. “One paper shows that about 75 percent of male and female engineering students believe the perception that scientists cannot be feminine is a problem for female engineers.”
Finding a dearth of rigorous research into such biases, the researchers designed two studies to examine “whether subtle variations in feminine appearance erroneously convey a woman’s likelihood of being a scientist.”
The social media hashtag #ilooklikeanengineer campaign called attention to stereotypes in the enginieering industry and was the impetus for the CU experiments. Pictured is Isis Wenger, whose photo was featured in her tech firm’s ad to recruit more engineers. Because she was deemed “too attractive” to be a “real engineer,” some who saw the ad doubted its veracity.
The researchers controlled for such factors as age and also asked participants to say how likely subjects were to be early-childhood educators, a field dominated by women.
“What we find is that for men, there is no impact of gendered appearance,” Banchefsky says.
But for women, the more “feminine” a target’s appearance, the less likely participants identified her as a scientist. The more feminine a photo was deemed to be, the more likely participants were to believe that the targets were teachers.
The second study sought to winnow out potential distorting factors by presenting the photos of participants grouped by gender to one group, and photos sorted randomly to another. They were asked only to judge career-likelihood, without being asked to evaluate masculine or feminine appearance. The study also added journalism, a relatively gender-neutral field, to lessen impressions of bipolarity in stereotypically male and female careers (science and elementary education).
The message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high-school students, and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science.”
Likewise, the second study “showed that for female scientists, but not male scientists, perceivers used gendered appearance as a cue about how likely they were to be scientists.”
The research confirms the all-too-real experiences of many women in STEM fields. The paper opens with the story of Isis Wenger, whose photo was featured in her tech firm’s ad to recruit more engineers. Because she was deemed “too attractive” to be a “real engineer,” some who saw the ad doubted its veracity.
Some “golden age” science fiction novels of the ‘40s and ‘50s “daringly” put females in scientific roles, only to portray them as cold, sexless and plain, or unattractive — Isaac Asimov’s Susan Calvin, founder of U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men, is a classic example.
Listen to researcher Sarah Banchefsky discuss her results
“There are some accounts of women in STEM fields who not only feel like they can’t wear makeup or a dress, but also can’t talk about wanting to have kids,” Banchefsky says.
She says she hopes to expand the work in the future to examine racial biases (to streamline the studies, only photos of white scientists were used), biases against “feminine” scientists in the field and lab and identifying what factors participants deemed “attractive” or feminine.
Park, professor of social psychology and neuroscience, says the study has troubling implications for the future of science in America.
“These feminine looking women have ‘heard’ verbally or nonverbally that they don’t look like scientists, that they don’t belong in these male-dominated, highly prestigious fields,” she says. “(T)he message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high-school students, and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science.”
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer in Boulder.