Jean Yang always knew she wanted an advanced degree in computer science. She excelled in math, and computer programming was her passion. When she got offered a place in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ph.D. program, ‘yes’ was the obvious answer.
But others weren’t as confident in her career choice as she was. “People said, ‘Jean shouldn’t go to MIT. It’s not really a place for girls.’ They thought it was a place for antisocial male nerds,” says the 27-year-old, now in her sixth year at MIT. One of her mother’s friends even quipped that Yang—a self-described “fairly standard-looking, petite Asian woman”—didn’t look like a scientist.
As one of two women in her Harvard undergrad class to graduate with a degree in computer science, Yang wasn’t going to be swayed from her path by a snarky comment. But after starting at MIT, she discovered that her mother’s friend may have had a point. Young women like herself—high achieving coders who happened to be feminine—weren’t taken very seriously by colleagues or instructors. “I've definitely felt that I've had to downplay my femininity—and romantic desirability—in professional settings,” says Yang. “One woman put it bluntly to me: I seemed to care too much about my appearance; I wasn’t “geeky” enough.”
The number of women earning higher-level degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Yet women are still far underrepresented in STEM, earning only a third or less of all doctorates in the areas of computer science, math and engineering, according to the National Science Foundation. One reason for the striking discrepancy? Cultural stereotypes about intelligence pull women away from science, according to a 2013 study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers found that women who demonstrate an aptitude in STEM often opt out of the fields in favor of “typically female” professions, if they have broad academic talents.
Besides stereotypes about intelligence, assumptions about women in STEM and femininity might be scaring them away, too. On the one hand, there’s the typecast image of the frumpy, unattractive female scientist who considers dressing up wearing a lab coat. But if, like Yang, a women STEM is feminine or pretty, she faces a contrary stigma about deficiencies in her ability or intellect. “There are all these contradictions that are propagated in our culture that make it seem like you can’t be smart and sexy. I don’t think most of us challenge the paradigms, we just absorb them,” says Eileen Pollack, who explored the gender gap in the sciences in an October 2013 New York Times magazine article.
It’s what Pollack calls the “double-whammy” affecting women in STEM: If a woman is too attractive or feminine, she’ll have a hard time being taken seriously. But if she seems too smart or accomplished, she falls prey to the stigma that women who excel in masculine domains are threatening, dumpy, and simply not dating material. “I don’t see that there’s any question that our culture teaches women that [success in STEM fields] isn’t going to get them dates,” says Pollack, who earned her B.S. in physics from Yale and now teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan.
Drawing a distinct line between personal and workplace personas is expected of both genders in many professional fields, but the division is particularly glaring for women in STEM. In work and romance, they face stereotypes about the inverse correlation between intelligence and attractiveness. For Silicon Valley software engineer Jeanine Swatton, 41, getting men to take her seriously as a leader in tech has always been a challenge. “I'm tall, attractive, a size two, I go to the gym every day. At previous work situations, they thought I was the secretary. Excuse me, I'm the senior tech lead. Or they think I'm a recruiter or a marketing person. They're just shocked when they find out I have a brain,” she says.
In Swatton’s personal life, dating has required a kind of social lobotomy. “I've dated a couple of CEOs who wanted me to expand on their current apps,” she says. “They see me as a techie meal ticket. They see me as all business. That's the challenge. They don't see me as a female, as a woman. Sometimes I've been tempted to lie and tell them I'm a flight attendant to see if I'd get a different reaction.”
Swatton’s urge to lie in order to seem more desirable is straight out of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book: The Lean In author got “most likely to succeed” taken off her yearbook because she didn't want to damage her chances of getting a prom date.
For Talia Melber, 31, a Ph.D candidate in anthropology at the University of Illinois, her research in primate behavior is sometimes perceived as threatening in romantic situations. “Some men and some of my exes are definitely intimidated by my career,” says Melber “I once had someone ask what I did for a living who was too embarrassed to tell me about his own job after I’d told him about my cool job as a scientist at a zoo.”
Melber never considered downplaying her achievements in order to seem more desirable. Rather, she says that a man’s reaction to her career is a great filter for whether or not he’s boyfriend material. Yet professionally, Melber feels pressure overcompensate for being friendly and feminine.
“I’ve found that I have to adjust my behavior to be taken seriously in a STEM setting,” says Melber, who also teaches undergraduate courses in biology. “In academia I tend to become more abrasive and have a very low tolerance for shenanigans. I’m also constantly second-guessing when I let the abrasiveness drop, in hopes that simply being friendly doesn’t come off as being too unprofessional."
Not all women in STEM feel their careers negatively impact their romantic lives. For Yang, who mostly dates men in the sciences, plenty of men consider her coding skills “pretty badass.”
“It might just be the kinds of men I’m around, but being the girl who knows how to code is cool in some ways, like being the girl who can toss a football.”
Still, Yang might be an exception to the cultural rule. Hollywood has long upheld the come-hither helplessness of ditsy bombshells as a paragon of desirability. The message that smart women are threatening, abrasive, or unattractive has to with our cultural understanding of femininity, suggests Susan Walsh, a former management consultant and the creator of the blog Hooking Up Smart. “Some of the behaviors that go along with acting dumb—giggling, flirting— men associate with femininity,” she says. “Women who act dumb are perhaps conveying a desire to connect.”
Consider one of the most visible examples of women in STEM: the characters on the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory. There’s the frumpy, socially awkward Bernadette (microbiologist); the shrill, painfully frumpy Amy, (neurobiologist); and the effervescent blond Penny (waitress/actress). Who do the men on the show swoon over? Who gets asked on the most dates? You do the math.
The implicit message hurts women, but it’s particularly deleterious to girls who are making early decisions about careers in STEM. During adolescence, when fitting in is paramount, parsing subtle, reductive messages about brains versus beauty isn’t always a priority.
Then again, the messages aren’t always understated. In 2011, retail emporium Forever 21 marketed “Allergic to Algebra” shirts to teen girls, right on the heels of JC Penny’s “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother had to do it for me” sloganed tees. (Both controversial shirts were pulled from the stores. Forever 21 declined to comment on the shirts, but a spokesperson for the company said its intent “was not to discredit education.”)
The dumb/hot association is further entrenched by advertisements capitalizing on the trope. Perhaps the most egregious example is GoDaddy’s infamous 2013 Super Bowl commercial featuring model Bar Rafaeli and actor Jesse Helman. In it, Rafaeli wears a low cut dress and smiles coyly into the camera; Helman looks like he stepped straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. The viewer is told that Rafaeli represents the sexy side of GoDaddy, while Helman is the brains. Then they make out. The message is clear: A man’s position is to run the tech operation, while a woman’s job is to appear supplicant, show a little cleavage, and stare vapidly into the camera. Quiet explicitly, there’s beauty, and then there’s brains, and the twain shall never meet (except in a ridiculous lip lock).
But for every dozen vacuous pin-ups, there’s a fierce female response —think pop star Pink’s video for “Stupid Girls,” her satirical single mocking women eager to degrade themselves to appear sexy. And every man who feels intimidated by a computer wizard, there’s another who find her intelligence a turn-on. Why, then, does the “dumb girls are hot” and “smart girls are ugly” persist?
The myth that a woman can’t have an outstanding inferior cortex and a smoking body is one that Danica McKellar, aka Winnie Cooper from the hit television show The Wonder Years, has worked hard to dispel.“Girls are being led to believe they have to choose between firm and fabulous or smart and savvy. It’s self-destructive,” says McKellar, who graduated summa cum laude in mathematics from UCLA in 1998. “We’re smarter and more capable than we think, and my mission is to help girls find that.”
When she first declared her major, McKellar had a hard time convincing others—and at first, even herself—that she fit the part. “Here’s the truth. I didn’t think of myself as a math major, either,” says McKellar. “I’d gotten a five on the AP Calculus test. But when I got to college and thought about taking a math class, I still didn’t think I’d be good at it. Then I said, wait a minute. If I don’t think I’m good at this, then who is?”
Today, she’s a mathematician and a New York Times bestselling author with a trio of books about math that make the subject relatable to adolescent girls. McKellar, who met her college boyfriend in an advanced math class, cautions women against dumbing themselves down to appear sexy.
Women like McKellar—or Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri, who graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science—have come far enough to know they aren’t going to compromise their career to pander to stereotypes or for the sake of a date. But what about young women on the cusp of making critical choices about their careers? Pollack has just one bit of advice.
“I just think that people should be fulfilled, and if they’re not going to follow a path that’s fulfilling because of these cultural message, that’s a shame.”