The story is almost a cliché, isn’t it? A young girl in grade and middle school loves to tinker, is great at math, enjoys digging in the dirt for bugs and toads, and is a voracious reader… until she gets to high school. Becoming pubescent, she will stop caring about math – claiming that it’s “too hard”, that science is “gross” and worrying a lot more about her social network than her GPA. The most important lesson is that being pretty and popular is more important than being smart – or at least seeming smart.
Of course, these days we tell ourselves that it’s just a teenage phase. And that modern, 21st century women have broken away from those high school gender norms. They don’t need to “play dumb” to get a date anymore. That being smart is hip. Even that being smart is sexy.
Well, maybe not. The other day, my colleague came across a new paper by researchers at the University of Buffalo that addressed people’s attitudes for STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in relation to feelings their about career, friendship and romance.
In the experiments, adult subjects were shown images or heard conversations that focused on romantic goals (dates, fancy dinners), intelligence goals (libraries, tests) or friendship goals (conversations, visits). Afterwards, they completed questionnaires assessing their interest in STEM vs. other fields.
Results showed that women (but not men) exposed to cues related to romantic goals reported less positive attitudes toward STEM compared to other disciplines (this didn’t happen with the intelligence or friendship goals). This ended up being true not just for women in general, but for women already in or pursuing a career in a STEM field! In the end, they’re saying that when they’re focusing on romance, women don’t want to be seen as too nerdy-smart, though arty-smart seems to be okay.
So, do you buy it? I think consciously every woman on in that study would say, “No! Smart is sexy!” and yet there seems to be something subtle going on underneath that is still dissociating romantic-goals from STEM. Are they just mutually exclusive, or is this still latent societal norms still playing out?
That got me thinking of whether there are any women currently on television or in movies that are STEM-oriented, but being portrayed as romantically desirable? Think about that. I say cops and government agents don’t count because they carry guns and are super-dangerous – so that gets rid of Fringe, Alias, Covert Affairs, etc. Medical professionals don’t count either – as someone that’s had to tutor pre-med and nursing students through organic chemistry can attest. So, sorry Grey’s Anatomy ladies, you’re out too.
Emily Deschanel as forensic scientist Temperance Brennan on Bones is certainly smart and pretty but is portrayed as nearly hopelessly handicapped in the realm of human interactions – and this is most common trope I think that is seen, that to be good at hard science, you can’t be a “normal” person, you have to be some sort of ultra-nerd. Thinking about Bones, maybe Angela (Michaela Conlin) is the best example I can think of a normal person that is portrayed as both smart and attractive.
Help me out here, who am I missing that could be a decent example?