New Report Says Girls Feel They Must Choose Between Femininity and Sciences

by Ariana Anderson

Boys and girls perform equally in math and science testing when they begin elementary school, and show about the same level of enjoyment of the subjects. However, by 8th grade twice as many boys than girls are interested in STEM careers, (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) which are ultimately the fields with the highest growth rate and earning potential. This contributes to the gender pay gap among adults as well as various other inequalities. In high school teenage girls are less likely to take AP courses and tests in STEM fields, and (probably as a result) have lower average math SAT scores.

True Child has asked the question, “What could be causing elementary school girls who excel at math and who love science, to suddenly lose all interest or develop low grades in these subjects in late adolescence and early teens?” The results have been published in their report, Do Internalized Feminine Norms Depress Girls’ STEM Attitudes & Participation? After surveying existing literature on the issue and focus groups of young women of color, essentially their conclusion is yes, but they are left with many remaining questions for further investigation.

By analyzing institutional and interpersonal obstacles that might be to blame, True Child suggests, “these trends are connected to girls’ perception of STEM as masculine and their internalization of feminine norms. Girls are caught in a ‘double conformity’ bind, in which they must opt out of femininity or opt out of STEM.”

Girls and boys start school with about the same levels of enthusiasm and aptitude for the STEM fields, but around 3rd grade girls begin to drop behind their male peers in math scores. When True Child asked a focus group of young girls of color why this might be, all participants agreed that that was the time when “they start noticing the boys,” and several girls made remarks explaining that girls start to realize at that point that they can’t be both pretty and smart. And apparently being smart is the less appealing option. The gender gap only widens with age. Some girls also said that in middle school the time spent on their appearance (ex. getting up at 4 am before school) cut into the time they could spend on their schoolwork. Later on, adult women with careers in engineering are also found to often feel conflicted about choosing between proving that they are “real engineers” or “real women.” 

True Child also found that young African-American girls are found to “resist narrow, traditional ideas of feminine beauty better than their middle-class White peers. For example, they are less likely to internalize idealized presentations in girl-oriented magazines and ads.” I would assume this is because the ads and magazines are directed towards white girls and/or depict white girls in the first place so the African-American girls don’t feel targeted and don’t ‘buy-into’ it. And these ‘traditional ideas of feminine beauty’ are already entwined with white privilege. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t follow this finding up with the relationship between STEM fields and race.

Read the full report here. It concludes with many unanswered questions that will hopefully provide a good starting point for further research. Something they do not mention that I am curious about, however, is how many boys are interested/involved in non-STEM fields, and why those fields that are stereotypically feminine are undervalued and underpaid. I think that would provide a more holistic picture of the situation.

The images in this post are from the Girls’ Leadership Institute website. GLI is a fantastic resource for girls and young women, providing transformational programs and summer camps focused on empowering girls and inspiring them to be their authentic selves—i.e. not being forced to choose between femininity and science. If you have any girls or young women in your life, I highly suggest you check out their resources and the books Rachel Simmons, GLI’s founder, has written on the subject.

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