A US investigation has found that men and women assume female researchers with more stereotypically feminine looks are less likely to be scientists and more likely to be school teachers or journalists. The superficial femininity or masculinity of male scientists, by contrast, was not related to observers’ judgments about the likelihood that they were scientists. For both male and female scientists, those considered more attractive were thought less likely to be a scientist.
The findings come from two studies that involved over 250 people, recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website, looking at smiling headshots of 80 men and women scientists taken from the webpages of elite US science labs. The participants did not know the origin of the photos and thought they were taking part in a study of first impressions.
The results, published in Sex Roles, echo real-life events – last year an advertising campaign by the tech company OneLogin faced accusations of fakery after some people found it unbelievable that their feminine-looking software engineer Isis Anchalee – who featured in the campaign – was the real deal. They also add to past findings that “some women in STEM [science, technology and medicine] not only minimize feminine appearance (e.g., avoid wearing make-up) but also eschew feminine traits, behaviors, and goals” presumably so as to avoid the prejudice reflected in the new findings.
The researchers said “women’s interest in STEM may … be thwarted by the undue perception that women scientists cannot express femininity,” adding “a woman who is more feminine in appearance than other women will elicit stronger perceived role incongruity and will therefore experience more prejudice.” More research is needed on the long-term effects, for example “before choosing science, are feminine girls and women—because they don’t ‘look like scientists’—treated differently by parents, teachers, and others?”
How to tackle the prejudice? Campaigns such as the European Commission’s “Science, it’s a Girl Thing” have been ridiculed, and there’s evidence that overemphasising feminine role-models can be harmful. But the researchers said “we should not conclude that feminine or ‘girly images’ of women in STEM are uniformly harmful to fostering women’s interest in STEM. In our opinion, there is an important distinction between portraying naturalistic variation in women’s gendered appearance in STEM versus extreme, objectified or sexualized portrayals of feminine women scientists”.
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