Kathleen Buse, PhD '12, is an adjunct professor at the Weatherhead School of Management and instructor in the Weatherhead Executive Education Leadership Lab for Women in STEM.
The focus on how women “look” is in the news again this week. Michael Eisner, the 73-year-old former CEO of Disney credited Goldie Hawn’s beauty for her successful career as a comedic actress. When asked about Eisner’s comments, Hawn told CBS, "The gift of comedy given to the many outstanding talented women throughout history has never been predicated on physical beauty. It is brilliance, timing, truth, fearlessness, and without a doubt a sign of high intelligence. Long live the women who bring laughter into the hearts of people everywhere."
And yet the media’s response to Eisner’s comments has been to discuss all of the beautiful women in comedy. Can you imagine Eisner declaring to the world, “That Jerry Seinfeld! What an attractive man—it’s no wonder he succeeded.”
Women continue to be defined by their looks, not by their accomplishments, across all stages of life and levels of interaction. Earlier this year I participated in the Tech Savvy day at Stark State College. The AAUW developed Tech Savvy as a daylong science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career conference. It is designed to attract middle school girls to the STEM professions and to inform families about STEM education and careers. Near the end of the day I moderated a panel of STEM women. Each woman told their own life stories thoughtfully and eloquently. They presented a realistic, yet positive image of women who had fulfilling lives that included their career as engineers, scientists and IT professionals.
At the end of the time allotted, I asked the audience of 100+ girls what they learned from the panel. The very first student said, “I learned that you can be pretty and be an engineer.”
Even at this early developmental stage of life, girls are equating success with beauty. Sometimes I think it is great that these girls realize STEM women are really no different from other women, but on the other hand, the entire day was focused on how women were able to attain whatever they wanted in life. Instead, these girls, and society as a whole, continue to focus on what women look like and not on what they have or can achieve.
The USA is celebrating the women’s national soccer team after a decisive 5-2 win over Japan in the final game of the World Cup. The discussion of how these women look rather than a focus on their performance continues in homes across America and in the media. At one gathering I attended over the weekend, the party host turned the conversation from discussing the heart break of England’s loss to Japan to the thighs of the women soccer players. He discussed the player’s thighs as “big” and “muscular” and went on to say how “unattractive” this made their legs. Have you ever heard anyone discussing the size of LeBron’s thighs or how his muscular build was unattractive?
Just last week on FIFA.com, team USA forward Alex Morgan was referred to as ''a talented goal scorer with a style that is very easy on the eye, and good looks to match; she is nothing short of a media phenomenon.'' FIFA or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association is the global governing body of soccer. Many wondered on social media if any comment was ever written about male soccer players’ good looks or being “easy on the eyes.”
The focus on how girls and women look begins very early in life. Listen to how both men and women talk about infants. When discussing baby girls, parents and family members will usually say something about how the baby girl looks. In contrast, baby boys are more likely to be described by how they act by both men and women.
It is normal in our society to talk about differences between girls and boys. But according to recent research studies the talk itself creates these differences between girls and boys. The research provides no evidence that behavioral differences are the result of hard-wiring in the brain. Years ago society believed that girls were just not good at math. Today we know that girls get higher grades than boys in math and science in high school classes. And yet girls are not selecting the STEM professions mostly because they believe they are not as capable as the boys.
Let’s change the conversation. Instead of focusing on how girls and women look, let’s focus on what they can achieve. We can do this with an intentional change in the way we parent, in the way we talk to children and in our day-to-day conversation.
Parents, teachers and others who are often around children, be aware of your own ideas on gender differences. Are you always commenting on what girls and women are wearing? Or what they look like? Stop and think about the impact of these comments on your children. Ask yourself, would I say that if I was commenting on a boy or a man?
Here are some ideas on how to talk to the girls in your life about what they can achieve in life. The STEM professions offer opportunities to change our world. Women scientists and engineers are involved with the Grand Challenges of the 21st century. These include:
- The BRAIN Initiative - a fundamental understanding of the brain that will lead to new ways to treat, cure and prevent brain disorders.
- The Grand Asteroid Challenge - a global effort to find potentially hazardous asteroids and develop innovative solutions to prevent an asteroid from damaging any part of the earth.
- Saving Lives at Birth - a project to prevent and treat pregnant women and newborns in poor, hard-to-reach communities around the time of delivery to save lives at birth.
It is time to change our society’s focus on girls and women, from beauty to talent and accomplishments. Take the time to stop and think about your words. Encourage the girls in your life to free themselves of other’s expectations on how they should be “beautiful” or “pretty.” Instead talk with them about what they can achieve in life and how they can make a difference in our world.
Weatherhead School of Management offers 70+ executive education programs, including courses in Women in Leadership and the Leadership Lab for Women in STEM. What you learn in a single day can change everything.