Science babes put girls off studying science

Television producers have an evident bias for young and beautiful presenters for science documentary programmes, and especially comely and exuberant females, preferably with PhDs. I’ve often wondered what effect this has on young people considering science as a career path. The thinking is that celebrity science babes should inspire the young, caught up as the latter are in a celebrity culture created in part and nurtured by TV producers.

Does this hypothesis stand up to the test? Not according to University of Michigan psychologists Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, who in a study focusing on middle-school pupils (average age 11.5 years) show that girlie science role models can put off girls who have little existing interest in science and mathematics. Going by the responses to Betz and Sekaquaptewa’s magazine-style survey, it seems to be a case of ‘out of my league’/impossible to emulate.

“Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalion-style feminine makeovers may do more harm than good.”

Whether this effect is universal, or restricted to the narrow age range studied, is open to question, but it makes sense to me, and not only in a gender-specific sense. Science documentaries in the UK are these days almost always fronted by young and photogenic presenters, often jobbing scientists with doctor titles flaunted at each and every opportunity. All eminently shaggable, depending on one’s sexual preferences.

Science communicators of a more critical if not downright sarcastic bent are wont to ridicule the frequent email appeals from television researchers calling for “the next Brian Cox”, but this is a good business model for programme makers to follow. Their output may not inspire the young to pursue careers in science and engineering – the reasons why school students choose other paths are many and various – but a pleasant face and well-kept curves accentuated by skilled camera work certainly help to cheer us up.

Further reading

Diana E Betz & Denise Sekaquaptewa, “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”, Social Psychology and Personality Science (2012)