Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

STEM and Sexualization: A New Vision for Girls

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About a week ago, I worked with several of our  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) faculty at ACU to host our third annual STEM for Girls day. Fifty-five middle school girls came to our campus and had an amazing day conducting hands-on activities with university and high school faculty and students. From physics, biology, and biochemistry to industrial design and internet technology, the girls learned, solved problems, and created. The girls got to explore both the new ACU Maker Lab and the university laboratories in the Foster Science Building.

Some of you may be wondering why I’m so passionate about promoting STEM interest in girls, and 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.

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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.

Here are some things that adults can do 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.

2 comments on “STEM and Sexualization: A New Vision for Girls

  1. Kimberly Thompson
    February 12, 2014

    Great post, Jennifer. Something I have noticed is that the belief that women aren’t as good in STEM fields doesn’t hold in Romania. I think this is probably true for the rest of Eastern Europe as well. I’m not sure of the historical roots of this, but female engineers are common there. Romania may be heirs to the Roman engineering legacy. Anyway, it was from our first experiences in Romania that turned the lightbulb on for me that pigeonholing women into “verbal” or “relational” competencies is a cultural thing, not a function of physiology or biology.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      February 12, 2014

      This is definitely a cultural issue, thanks for pointing that out!

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