Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Sexualization of Girls: Why talk about STEM?

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I’ve been talking a lot about promoting Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields lately. Some of you may be wondering how that is related to fighting against the sexualization of children. These two concepts are closely related, because while one presents girls with a strong, capable view of who they are and can be, the other presents girls with a rigid, narrow version of who they are and can be. Sexualized media and marketing campaigns and the gender-stereotyped ideas that go hand in hand with them promote the idea that a girl’s primary worth comes from her appearance, sex appeal, and romantic relationships. Girls need to see a broader version of female worth that focuses on intellect, curiosity, diligence, and discovery. Giving girls access to the STEM fields and role models within them provides them with this different perspective.

Did you know that recent research has shown that males and females are now performing similarly in math? And yet, women continue to be underrepresented in the STEM fields. Why is that? Some researchers have suggested that girls as young as nine are already buying into the implicit stereotype that says that girls aren’t as good at math and other STEM fields. Implicit stereotypes are those that are not necessarily conscious. Rather, these are simple associations that kids make between gender and ability, such as linking math with male. Little girls who tended to do this tended to have lower academic self-concept and achievement and to choose to enroll in fewer courses in those areas linked with boys. The authors of this study say, “Gender stereotypes stressing the incompetence of female students in math appear to have a great impact on women by lowering their performance and interest in math” (Steffens, Jelenec, & Noack, 2010, pg. 947).

This is why products, programs, and marketing campaigns that promote the idea that girls and women are bad at particular skill areas, such as math, are damaging. For example, the “Too pretty to do math” t-shirts (that are still for sale on websites) jokingly put forth the idea that being pretty and female is linked to poor math skills. Many are tempted to see this as simple, harmless humor. But when girls in elementary school continue to avoid math because they implicitly link it with males, when women who do choose STEM fields and face stereotype threat pay for it with their health and well-being, when there continue to be multiple barriers to women succeeding in STEM fields, there is too much truth to the perception of this statement to make it funny.

In order to break the hold that sexualized stereotypes have on girls, adults must present them with alternative viewpoints. We must provide them with female role models who succeed in STEM and other non-traditional fields. We must talk with our girls about STEM areas as if they are interested in them, allowing them to explore new ideas and concepts. We must speak directly against the stereotype that girls can’t be as good as boys in these areas. STEM is just one area that provides girls with an alternate vision of what it means to be female. Sports, performing and creative arts, community service and activism, getting girls involved in these kinds of activities offers them a way to see themselves and their value that is not linked to their appearance and sex appeal.

Lindberg, S.M., Hyde, J.S., Petersen, J.L., & Linn, M.C. (2010). New trends in gender and mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 1123-1135.

Steffens, M.C., Jelenec, P., & Noack, P. (2010). On the leaky math pipeline: Comparing implicit math-gender stereotypes and math withdrawal in female and male children and adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 947-963.

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2 comments on “Sexualization of Girls: Why talk about STEM?

  1. michyulo
    March 7, 2012

    Thanks for this Jennifer. I agree that we need to keep talking about it and putting STEM at the forefront. As you know, I did a blog post called “Encouraging Girls to Tinker,” (http://www.princessfreezone.com/pfz-blog/2011/8/19/encourage-girls-to-tinker.html) which I believe is the first step to battling the stereotypes they might encounter later and which can prevent them from pursuing science and math. This is also part of the reason I created Super Tool Lula–a girl with her own tools and tool belt. Moms who have read the book to their girls have said that, after reading it, their daughters wanted to immediately go get their own tool belt. Girls need to see other girls in these “alternative” views as you say.

    In addition, I did just post an interesting piece this morning called, “When Scientists Choose Motherhood,” that posits the issue is really about women having to decide between having children or continuing their careers. https://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/2012/2/when-scientists-choose-motherhood/1

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      March 7, 2012

      Michele, thanks for sharing the “Encouraging girls to tinker” post! I’m sharing some tips for adults to encourage girls in STEM tomorrow that will fit so nicely with what you’ve said!

      I commented on the article you shared about mom’s and science careers. I totally agree. I think there are certain fields that haven’t traditionally had women in them and so things are set up that just assume certain things about families, like the fact that there is a stay at home parent who can take kids to doctors, stay home with sick kids, etc. When that isn’t the case, it’s a real challenge for moms, because most of the time that part of parenting still falls to them. Not always, but often.

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