Femininity and STEM: Naming, Framing, and STEM Gender Bias

By Heidi Olinger

Girls and Women in STEM, this post is about language. It is about gender stereotypes. It is about perception. It is about time I took apart for everyone the meaning of pretty brainy in our brand identity. Why? Some in our community are sensitive to the use of the word pretty when issues confronting females in STEM studies and careers are serious. Identity can be a matter of survival. The words that frame an identity should be selected with care.
To anyone who has reacted against the use of the word pretty in the Pretty Brainy brand identity because they believe its use sends the wrong STEM message to girls, my request is this: examine your biases. We all hold biases and STEM biases. An emotional reaction against a suggestion of femininity is a bias.

If your reading of the word pretty stops at the definition as “graceful, pleasing, delicate” and “indicative of commonly accepted notions of beauty,” then your bias has prevented you from grasping our brand’s reclaiming and ownership of the word to mean quite and mainly. Quite Brainy. Mainly Brainy. Considerably Brainy. Largely Brainy. Pretty Brainy.

The word is an adverb, a descriptive word modifying another descriptive word.
The word pretty oscillates: it does not have one meaning. It is complex. It cannot be pinned down to one, singular representation.
The word shares these qualities with women whose lives are rich with multiplicity: think of the woman, for example, who is engineer and mother, inventor and mentor, researcher and girlfriend, technologist and teacher. Seeing her in just one of multiple roles does not negate everything about her that another fails to observe. She Is. She — and she alone — has ultimate ownership of defining who and what she is. That right extends to how she chooses to express herself as female, as a woman, and within her profession. She may embrace femininity and that lens professionally may enhance her work. She may reject the feminine, including my use in this moment of the feminine pronoun she. On the job, femininity might not be practical. Is the experience of being female and a STEM student or professional in the midst of others’ biases tougher than these words may make it sound? Yes.
Here is my request to women and girls in STEM. Your fulfilling this request may be difficult. Ready? Be authentic while doing what is necessary to perform your best as student and professional. Act from your conscience and your values. Gird yourself for gender stereotypes. I am confident there are myriad instances in which I have been called the B word, for example. The name-calling goes back to junior high (now there’s a soup of highly intelligent social action). No matter the word’s delivery, whether spit in my face or snuck behind my back, it is attributable to the limited mental capacity or limited exercise of that capacity by those who have called me such. I’m not limited by the stereotypes.
Seek out people who are intelligent, broad-minded and compassionate. Actively find your tribe. One of the goals of Pretty Brainy is to build a community of women and girls in STEAM so we can be that tribe.

Sources for Forging Brand Identity

To form the Pretty Brainy brand identity, I studied the following sources. They were my standards and guidelines. They remain core texts I choose today when teaching marketing to science professionals. Here they are, in the order in which I employed them —

Neumeier, Marty. Zag: The #1 Strategy of High-Performance Brands. Berkeley: New Riders, 2007.

_______________. The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design. Berkeley: New Riders, 2006.

Before forging the Pretty Brainy brand ID, I inescapably knew the power of language thanks to my work as a journalist, writer, and editor. I am a second-wave feminist. I knew what I was doing in juxtaposing pretty and brainy.
Thank you to those who raise the bar on language and framing meaning and to those who railed against the use of the word pretty. Here you may learn more about Pretty Brainy.

I am grateful. The conversation continues. 

About Me

I am the founder and chief executive of Pretty Brainy. I frequently speak on the authentic empowerment of girls and women in STEM and STEAM. Colorado Women of Influence recently honored me as the 2017 Colorado Woman of Inspiration. I have been an instructor for the National Science Foundation’s i-Corps for Learning. Connect with me on Twitter @prettybrainy. Tweets sometimes are not my own but those of media intern Kyra Adamson. She’s empowered.

P.S. For a July 2017 interview that includes discussion of how I formed the Pretty Brainy brand ID, see the following.
Colorado Woman of Influence 2017 Woman of Vision: Heidi Olinger