Psychologists find that feminine women are perceived as less likely to be scientists

Freya Preimesberger

Women with long hair and lipstick may receive signals that they don’t belong in STEM.

A study has found that research participants are less likely to identify women with feminine features as scientists or engineers, while men’s appearances had no effect on their perceived career. University of Colorado Boulder psychologists and UT postdoctoral researcher Jacob Westfall collaborated on the study, which was published in the journal “Sex Roles.”

“It validates something that some women in STEM fields have been telling us — that they’re not taken seriously or that people are surprised that they’re scientists just because of something as superficial as their appearance,” said Sarah Banchefsky, postdoctoral researcher at UC-Boulder and lead researcher of the study.

The researchers showed eighty photos of male and female STEM faculty from elite research universities, including MIT, Princeton and UT, to random participants. The scientists chose the participants from employees on a crowdsourcing website.

The participants weren’t told about the faculty members’ occupations. They were asked to rate each faculty member on traits such as femininity and attractiveness, as well as whether she or he was a scientist or a childhood educator.

The study found that the research participants selected women with stereotypically feminine features, such as makeup, long hair and feminine bone structure, as more likely to be childhood educators than scientists. If women were more feminine, participants were less likely to guess that they are scientists. Women with more masculine features and men did not receive any kind of bias. The study controlled for age and race.

“The message that your appearance matters and that it is relevant to your career choice likely leads other women — as undergraduates, as high school students, and even as young girls — to conclude they just don’t fit with science,” Bernadette Park, psychology professor at UC-Boulder and co-author of the study, said in a UC-Boulder press release.

Women still lack representation in science and engineering fields, according to the National Science Foundation. They receive only twenty percent of bachelor’s degrees and their numbers decrease further as they enter the workforce and academia. Gender bias and the portrayal of science as a masculine field contribute to their underrepresentation. 

According to the study, women in STEM often report feeling unable to appear or act feminine, which creates dissatisfaction and increases the chances of them leaving the field.

Informing people of biases, advertising diversity in STEM fields and gender-blind hiring are the first steps towards changing current beliefs, Banchefsky said. 

For example, the online campaign and hashtag “#ILookLikeAnEngineer” featured engineers of all genders and backgrounds posting pictures of themselves on Twitter in order to challenge current stereotypes. The campaign started when the tech firm OneLogin featured a female computer engineer in its recruitment ads and the company received backlash because she was “too pretty” to be an engineer.

A previous study found that exposure to counter-stereotypes, such as in “#ILookLikeAnEngineer,” increases people’s interest in science and engineering. These campaigns can lead to more women and some ethnic minorities joining science and engineering, increasing diversity in the field.

“Increasing the numbers of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM…communicates the message that these groups belong in this environment, that they are welcome and have valuable contributions to make,” Park said.