This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. On Thursday, March 27, Future Tense and New America’s Breadwinning and Caregiving Program will host From Nowhere to Nobels: Pathways to Success for Women in STEM in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
At 3 years old, my astute little niece has already glommed on to the perception that pursuing both motherhood and a career in the hard sciences is implausible.
She had told me recently that she wanted to be a mommy when she grows up. I applauded her on this goal and suggested that she consider becoming both an astronaut and a mommy. Her response was to tell me I’m silly. “You can’t be an astronaut and a mommy,” she said, grinning at my seemingly ridiculous suggestion.
I’ve been neither an astronaut nor mother thus far in my lifetime, but I can see the difficulty that each of these roles might pose. What vexes me is not the perception that pursuing both concurrently would be complicated but that the two roles are viewed as incompatible—so incompatible, in fact, that the idea quite literally drove an observant 3-year-old to giggles.
My niece didn’t arrive at these assumptions by herself. A number of researchers have found evidence to suggest that motherhood and careers in the sciences are widely viewed as incompatible. (Interestingly, many studies actually show that women with children are even more productive in the workplace than women without children.) Beliefs that motherhood and science careers don't mesh are a shame, indeed, given Census Bureau data that by 2010, some 80 percent of women had become mothers by their early 40s.
Perceptions of mother-scientist role incompatibility represent only a piece of the puzzle regarding women’s underrepresentation in the sciences—just one-quarter of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce is female, according to the Department of Commerce. Some social scientists have examined this problem, asking whether femininity and STEM are compatible. The answer seems dependent in part on whose definition of femininity you’re looking at.
In a provocative piece by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa for example, femininity was defined as wearing pink and espousing a love of fashion magazines. The researchers found that middle-school girls who viewed an article about feminine girls who excel in STEM were less interested and less confident of their abilities in math than girls who viewed a similar article about the STEM talents of gender-neutral girls (girls who wore dark clothing and glasses and enjoyed reading in general). Another interesting study—this one by Lora Park, Ariana Young, Jordan Troisi, and Rebecca Pinkus—showed that when engaged in romantic activities, women (but not men) reported less positive attitudes toward STEM and lower intentions to pursue STEM fields.
The European Commission must not have read these pieces when they produced the 2012 gem “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” a campaign that seemingly integrated images from women’s fashion magazines with images that represent the sciences. The campaign, which reminded me of Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” video, was better when parodied on a $13 budget by a group of women neuroscientists who—shockingly—found the original demeaning to women. Replacing the “I” in science with a tube of lipstick won’t suddenly inspire a high-school sophomore to explore mechanical engineering.
More eye-rolling and gnashing of teeth ensued when Goldman Sachs gave away feminine swag at a women’s coding conference at Harvard. The freebies—a nail file and a mirror—suggested to at least some women that Goldman Sachs was promoting negative stereotypes about women. As one attendee quipped, “It’s sitting there, in my cabinet, waiting for my nails to chip after a long day of coding.”
But do all efforts to feminize STEM backfire?
Some research suggests that women are more likely to choose careers that align with feminine values of caregiving and nurturing. For example, the Department of Labor reported that in 2008, a whopping 92 percent of registered nurses were women, and according to the National Center for Education Information, in 2011, 84 percent of public school teachers were women.