What does it mean to be a good role? Am I a good role model? Playing around with kids at home or in the middle of a science classroom, adults often ask themselves these questions, especially when it come to girls and science. But despite having asked them many times myself, I don’t think they’re the right questions.
Studying how role models influence students shows a process that is much more complicated than it first seems. In some studies, when female students interact with more female professors and peers in science, their own self-concepts in science can be improved . Others studies show that the number of female science teachers at their school seems to have no effect .
Finding just the right type of role model is even more challenging. Do role models have to be female? Do they have to be of the same race as the students? There is often an assumption that even images and stories can change students’ minds about who can do science. If so, does it help to show very feminine women with interests in science like the science cheerleaders? The answer in most of these studies is, almost predictably, yes and no.
Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa’s recent study “My Fair Physicist: Feminine Math and Science role models demotivate young girls” seems to muddy the waters even further, suggesting that overly feminine role models might actually have a negative effect on students.  The study caught my eye when PhD student Sara Callori wrote about it and shared that it made her worry about her own efforts to be a good role model.
Betz and Sekaquaptewa worked with two groups of middle school girls. With the first group (144 girls, mostly 11 and 12 years old) they first asked the girls for their three favourite school subjects and categorized any who said science or math as STEM-identified (STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). All of the girls then read articles about three role models. Some were science/math role models and some were general role models (i.e., described as generally successful students). The researchers mixed things even further so that some of the role models were purposefully feminine (e.g., shown wearing pink and saying they were interested in fashion magazines) and others were supposedly neutral (e.g., shown wearing dark colours and glasses and enjoying reading).* There were feminine and neutral examples for both STEM and non-STEM role models. After the girls read the three articles, the researchers asked them about their future plans to study math and their current perceptions of their abilities and interest in math.**
For the most part, the results were as expected. The STEM-identified girls showed more interest in studying math in the future (not really a surprise since they’d already said math and science were their favourite subjects) and the role models didn’t seem to have any effect. Their minds were, for the most part, already made up.
What about the non-STEM identified girls, did the role models help them? It’s hard to tell exactly because the researchers didn’t measure the girls’ desire to study math before reading about the role models. It seems though that reading about feminine science role models took away from their desire to study math both in the present and the future. Those who were non-STEM identified and read about feminine STEM role models rated their interest significantly lower than other non-STEM identified girls who read about neutral STEM role models and about non-STEM role models. A little bit surprising was the additional finding that the feminine role models also seemed to lower STEM-identified girls current interest in math (though not their future interest).
The authors argue that the issue is unattainability. Other studies have shown that role models can sometimes be intimidating. They can actually turn students off if they seem too successful, such that their career or life paths seem out of reach, or if students can write them off as being much more talented or lucky than themselves. Betz and Sekaquaptewa suggest that the femininity of the role models made them seem doubly successful and therefore even more out of the students’ reach.
The second part of the study was designed to answer this question but is much weaker in design so it’s difficult to say what it adds to the discussion. They used a similar design but with only the STEM role models, feminine and non-feminine (and only 42 students, 20% of whom didn’t receive part of the questionnaire due to an error). The only difference was instead of asking about students interest in studying math they tried to look at the combination of femininity and math success by asking two questions:
1) “How likely do you think it is that you could be both as successful in math/science AND as feminine or girly as these students by the end of high school?” (p. 5)
2) “Do being good at math and being girly go together?” (p. 5)
Honestly, it’s at this point that the study loses me. The first question has serious validity issues (and nowhere in the study is the validity of the outcome measures established). First, there are different ways to interpret the question and for students to decide on a rating. A low rating could mean a student doesn’t think they’ll succeed in science even if they really want to. A low rating could also mean that a student has no interest in femininity and rejects the very idea of being successful at both. These are very different things and make the results almost impossible to interpret. Second these “successes” are likely different in kind. Succeeding in academics is time dependent and it makes sense to ask young students if they aspire to be successful in science. Feminine identity is less future oriented and more likely to be seen as a trait rather a skill that is developed. It probably doesn’t make sense to ask students if they aspire to be more feminine, especially when femininity has been defined as liking fashion magazines and wearing pink.
Question: Dear student, do you aspire to grow up to wear more pink?
Answer (regardless of femininity): Um, that’s a weird question.
With these questions, they found that non-STEM identified girls rated themselves as unlikely to match the dual success of the feminine STEM role models. Because of the problems with the items though, it’s difficult to say what that means. The authors do raise an interesting question about unattainability, though, and I hope they’ll continue to look for ways to explore it further.
So, should graduate students like Sara Callori be worried? Like lots of researchers who care deeply about science, Sara expressed a commendable and strong desire to make a contribution to inspiring young women in physics (a field that continues to have a serious gender imbalance). She writes about her desire to encourage young students and be a good role model:
“When I made the decision to go into graduate school for physics, however, my outlook changed. I wanted to be someone who bucked the stereotype: a fashionable, fun, young woman who also is a successful physicist. I thought that if I didn’t look like the stereotypical physicist, I could be someone that was a role model to younger students by demonstrating an alternative to the stereotype of who can be a scientist. …This study also unsettled me on a personal level. I’ve long desired to be a role model to younger students. I enjoy sharing the excitement of physics, especially with those who might be turned away from the subject because of stereotypes or negative perceptions. I always thought that by being outgoing, fun, and yes, feminine would enable me to reach students who see physics as the domain of old white men. These results have me questioning myself, which can only hurt my outreach efforts by making me more self conscious about them. They make me wonder if I have to be disingenuous about who I am in order to avoid being seen as “too feminine” for physics.”
To everyone who has felt this way, my strong answer is: NO, please don’t let this dissuade you from outreach efforts. Despite results like this, when studies look at the impact of role models in comparison to otherinfluences, relationships always win over symbols. The role models that make a difference are not the people that kids read about in magazines or that visit their classes for a short period of time. The role models, really mentors, that matter are people in students’ lives: teachers, parents, peers, neighbours, camp leaders, and class volunteers. And for the most part it doesn’t depend on their gender or even their educational success. What matters is how they interact with and support the students. Good role models are there for students, they believe in their abilities and help them explore their own interests.
My advice? Don’t worry about how feminine or masculine you are or if you have the right characteristics to be a role model, just get out there and get to know the kids you want to encourage. Think about what you can do to build their self-confidence in science or to help them find a topic they are passionate about. When it comes to making the most of the interactions you have with science students, there are a few tips for success (and none of them hinge on wearing or not wearing pink):
- Be supportive and encouraging of students’ interest in science. Take their ideas and aspirations seriously and let them know that you believe in them. This turns out to be by far one of the most powerful influences in people pursuing science. If you do one thing in your interactions with students, make it this.
- Share with students why you love doing science. What are the benefits of being a scientist such as contributing to improving people’s lives or in solving difficult problems? Students often desire careers that meet these characteristics of personal satisfaction but don’t always realize that being a scientist can be like that.
- Don’t hide the fact that there are gender differences in participation in some areas of science (especially physics and engineering). Talk honestly with students about it, being sure to emphasize that differences in ability are NOT the reason for the discrepancies. Talk, for example, about evidence that girls are not given as many opportunities to explore and play with mechanical objects and ask them for their ideas about why some people choose these sciences and others don’t.
There are so many ways to encourage and support students in science, don’t waste time worrying about being the perfect role model. If you’re genuinely interested in taking time to connect with students, you are already the right type.
* There are of course immediate questions about how well supported these are as feminine characteristics but I’m willing to allow the researchers that they could probably only choose a few characteristics and had to try to find things that would seem immediately feminine to 11-12 year olds. I still think it’s a shallow treatment of femininity, one that disregards differences in cultural and class definitions of femininity. (And I may or may not still be trying to sort out my feelings about being their gender neutral stereotype, says she wearing grey with large frame glasses and a stack of books beside her).
**The researchers unfortunately did not distinguish between science and math, using them interchangeably despite large differences in gender representation and connections to femininity between biological sciences, physical sciences, math and various branches of engineering.
 Stout, J. G., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M., & McManus, M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: Using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 255-270.
 Gilmartin, S., Denson, N., Li, E., Bryant, A., & Aschbacher, P. (2007). Gender ratios in high school science departments: The effect of percent female faculty on multiple dimensions of students’ science identities. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 980–1009.
 Betz, D., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2012). My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612440735
Buck, G. A., Leslie-Pelecky, D., & Kirby, S. K. (2002). Bringing female scientists into the elementary classroom: Confronting the strength of elementary students’ stereotypical images of scientists. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 14(2), 1-9.
Buck, G. A., Plano Clark, V. L., Leslie-Pelecky, D., Lu, Y., & Cerda-Lizarraga, P. (2008). Examining the cognitive processes used by adolescent girls and women scientists in identifying science role models: A feminist approach. Science Education, 92, 2–20.
Cleaves, A. (2005). The formation of science choices in secondary school. International Journal of Science Education, 27, 471–486.
Ratelle, C.F., Larose, S., Guay, F., & Senecal, C. (2005). Perceptions of parental involvement and support as predictors of college students’ persistence in a science curriculum. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 286–293.
Simpkins, S. D., Davis-Kean, P. E., & Eccles, J. S. (2006). Math and science motivation: A longitudinal examination of the links between choices and beliefs. Developmental Psychology, 42, 70–83.
Stout, J. G., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M., & McManus, M. (2011). STEMing the tide: Using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept and professional goals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 255–270.
7 responses to “Don’t worry so much about being the right type of science role model”
Thank you for this post, Marie-Claire. This is an area that I still find myself perplexed as to why it is even an issue.
Across my whole career in doing science, teaching science, consulting about science and participating in science outreach, I never once wondered “Should I be more feminine?” “What kind of persona should I project?” or anything like that. In fact, until I wanted to share science in the visual media, I kept the fact that I used to be a fashion model a secret. I really never needed to mention, but figured it is generally harmless as it might have people question stereotypes, but it doesn’t define me. I believe my love of science does.
I didn’t always appear super feminine across my career. Some days I love pink and others I can’t stand it. My hair has been short, medium or long, I’ve been heavier and lighter, pregnant and not, and wore variably fashionable, appropriate and/or professional attire depending if I were teaching or working in the lab. Some days I felt completely exhausted from having four kids in less than eight years, so cared little how I looked as I dragged myself to the lab. And guess what? My western blots cared nothing how I looked either. 🙂
Yet, there was never a day I wasn’t excited about what I was doing. I plain love science, and enjoy talking, teaching and training others how to do it and to help find some interest, curiosity, and use for the material I had to share. I know I’m successful as an instructor if I can help people find that little spark for science whatever they decide to do with it once they leave my presence. I’ve had other faculty members jealous that I would get great reviews from students. They accused me of watering down material so they would like me (of course I didn’t). The department head finally asked how I did it. The answer is simple. I care enough to meet the students where they are and bring them where they need to be. You can only do this if you care who the students are as people.
I didn’t have any female role models (and never met a scientist until college) as I grew up, but nothing was going to stop me from finding a way to use my curiosity about the world in one way or another.
So ultimately the final suggestions in this post are the right ones. As with any passion, it is difficult to hide and THAT is what will be the intrigue that interests others.
Thanks so much for sharing your story Joanne. You’re exactly right, it’s the passion and caring to meet students where they are that makes such a difference. Your students are very lucky!
Very nice discussion! I’ve got a somewhat off-topic question about the study design. It seems like the impact of role models takes place on a relatively long time scale (semesters or years), and yet this study looked for an effect after a very short-term intervention – reading three articles. A similarly designed study was published in Science in April (“Analytical Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief”), looking at subject’s belief in God after taking a short quiz aimed at promoting analytical thinking.
Why do researchers believe that studies based on very brief interventions can help us understand causal relationships that occur on time scales of months or years? Belief in God or desire to study STEM probably doesn’t vary substantially from hour to hour or day to day. From my naive perspective, it seems like the effects observed in these studies would be inherently small, and subject to significant variation between studies.
Hi Mike – That’s not off topic at all. In fact, it’s spot on. That’s one of the main concerns I have about this kind of role model research. Making a real difference to students’ interest in science (or people’s beliefs) takes a long time. I can’t think of any comparative studies that show short term experiences (e.g., reading articles, hearing a speaker, taking quiz) having meaningful overall impact over long term ones (e.g., relationships with teachers and parents). I can see the appeal of trying to isolate a small piece of the overall puzzle in a study like this, but you’re right that it’s difficult to see how meaningful the results can really be.
Thanks for the great comment!
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