Princess or Geek: What Attracts Women to Science?
Most people seem to agree that there’s a gender diversity crisis in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields — and the situation is especially alarming in engineering and computing. What people don’t agree on is how to fix the problem.
Marketing aimed at recruiting girls into STEM tends to fall into one of two distinct categories: Let’s call them geek pride and sparkle science. The former usually has “geek” in the title and encourages people to reclaim a word that used to be synonymous with social failure, and the latter often applies STEM to stereotypically “girly” topics like princesses, makeup, and the color pink.
Appealing to women on either end of the geek-sparkle spectrum — if they’re even on opposite ends — has generated fierce debate, fueled by research, stereotypes, market demands, and frustration from women in the field.
The Geek Girl Movement
What is a geek? Sarah Grant, a volunteer who helps put together the annual Geek Girl Con, says it’s “someone who is passionate about something, anything from books to role-playing games to writing to baseball to stock-car racing.” The Geek Girl Con women would know; the event celebrates women and girl geeks and empowers them to pursue their passions, whether that’s science and technology or comics and video games. Programs as varied as the grassroots Girl Geek Dinners, the nonprofit Geekbus, and the White House’s We the Geeks are banking on the appeal of the word to help bring more women and minorities to STEM.
While this increasingly diverse set of self-proclaimed geeks may be gathering to celebrate everything from video games to superhero movies at conventions nowadays, the stereotype of the engineering or tech geek (white, male, antisocial, awkward) is still a huge problem for STEM, according to some.
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A 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when environments were too geeky (that is, stereotypically associated with computer science), “women were consistently less interested in joining the domain than men.” The study explored whether an emphasis on video games and even Star Trek-themed room decorations affected women’s interest in pursuing computer science in school or work. The researchers found that these tech-geek stereotypes, including the decorations, signaled a masculine environment that women consistently chose to opt out of because they felt like they didn’t belong.
The study also found that easy changes in the environment, like having neutral art or nature decorations, helped. According to the authors, society communicates that a woman “should dream in code, watch Star Trek, and read science fiction to be a computer scientist.” The study further suggested that “changing the field of computer science so that those who do not fit the present stereotypes feel that they have a place in the field will go a long way toward recruiting women.”
Science with a Sparkle
The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh didn’t use the Starship Enterprise to advertise its Science with a Sparkle program, a one-afternoon course for Girl Scouts about cosmetic chemistry that earned ire on social media from both Girl Scouts and STEM enthusiasts. The course was the only entry in the center’s programming for Girl Scouts, whereas the Boy Scouts’ list was much longer and included engineering, robotics, and other STEM-related offerings. Critics thought the center was relying on condescending and damaging stereotypes about what girls are interested in.
The science center later released a statement saying that no Girl Scouts signed up for other STEM courses when they were offered, but the incident still stung. “You’re offering makeup?” wrote Wonkette.com. “Look, we won’t even ask you to join the 21st century all at once — but could you at least try to emerge from 1958?”
As more STEM programs targeting women and girls have been developed, the trend of using stereotypically girly things in those efforts—whether that means including princesses, adding sparkles, or using the color pink—has met with some criticism. Likewise, professional groups that say they are for “web divas,” engineering schools that use pink and purple script fonts, and toys (such as Legos) that come preassembled only in the girls’ version have all faced backlash for their use of this tactic.
Indeed, some research has shown that “pinkifying” STEM might be counterproductive to attracting women and girls. A 2012 University of Michigan study found that STEM role models who were more feminine reduced middle school girls’ confidence in STEM; researchers said the combination of femininity and success seemed particularly “unattainable” to some girls.
Do the Pros Think Geek or Pink?
STEM professionals are unsurprisingly split about the different recruiting approaches and how harmful the stereotypes are to their fields. Some tech industry workers agree that the stereotype of STEM being synonymous with “geek” is true, though it comes with a dark side.
“Developers seem to bond over geek culture,” said a woman web developer who has been in the field for five years and who asked not to be identified. “But what of the developers who don’t quite fit in that mold?” She described being excluded in a department because she didn’t play a particular video game. “Sometimes this is called ‘poor cultural fit’ … but ‘company culture’ isn’t the same as fandom culture and never should be.”
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But engineer Tricia Berry, of the Women in Engineering Program at the University of Texas, Austin, thinks that the geek stereotype is not just untrue but also ineffective. “When we attribute these ‘geeky’ things to being an engineer or other STEM professional, we can exclude all of those who don’t like those things,” says Berry. “Middle school girls, for example, who do not want to be seen as geeky may opt out of STEM opportunities if they believe you have to like Star Trek to be a part of the STEM club.”
Debbie Sterling, the Stanford University-educated inventor of GoldieBlox toys, doesn’t consider herself a geek. “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no black-and-white definition of what engineers and tech workers should look like or be into,” Sterling says. “Many people would say I don’t necessarily fit the typical description, and I kind of love breaking that mold.” Sterling’s toys have faced some backlash because they’re pink and involve princesses; yet they also are very popular with girls and teach concepts like torque, prototyping, and propulsion.
Front-end developer Audrey Brockhaus at Arizona tech company Meltmedia, who switched careers a few years ago and has been in the field for a year, admits that she doesn’t identify with either the pink or the geek approach. “I feel a little bit embarrassed by a lot of the ‘yay girls!’ stuff that goes on. I guess it’s the implication that women need so much help and are so easily manipulated.”
Other women in STEM just want to avoid pigeonholing. “If it works, it works,” said another tech professional, who wanted to be anonymous. “I started coding my profile on a site that may have been perceived as ‘for little girls,’ and it encouraged HTML and CSS customization, which led me to dabble in code at a younger age than many,” she said. “No need for a one-size-fits-all formula to usher girls into the field. Try anything and everything.”
Whether these girly and geeky stereotypes are effective, harmful, or outdated is still up for debate, but it’s clear that many more recruitment options are needed to get and keep women in engineering and tech fields. In the end, it’ll take all kinds of workers and all kinds of approaches to engineer creative solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s problems.
The problem is complex, but there are solutions.
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