Pretty or smart? Why do girls have to choose?

By Michelle Dickinson 15/07/2015 3


I have two lives, one as a privileged academic with a job that surrounds me with smart, interesting people and a lab which enables me to create, discover and question.

The other, as Nanogirl, a female in a lab coat who visits schools inspiring curious minds while trying to understand why so few girls want to study science.10547950_736177456446163_8736243428451557995_o

In meeting hundreds of girls of all socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity backgrounds, there seems to be a uniform they all share.  A uniform that includes body image insecurity, worries about dating and the need to fit in.

10897982_852580051472569_6880833753311879098_nOne of my goals as Nanogirl is to help girls to build confidence in themselves and to see how being smart can lead to being successful.  I run superpower leadership talks for teenage girls and talk to them about some of the issues they face.  I learn about who their role models are and become saddened when they say people like “Kim Kardashian” or “Miley Cyrus” because they are “beautiful and rich”.  What I want to hear is that they have female role models who are famous for being smart, but the media isn’t full of stories of those types of women.

The girls tell me that to be successful in life you need to be pretty, and when I ask them about being smart, they say that being smart can make you less pretty as people call you a geek or a nerd.

I’ve asked the girls if they feel pressure not to appear to be “too smart” and they say that they do, especially if there are boys around because they don’t want the boys to be intimidated by them.

One girl said to me “boys don’t want a girl who is smarter than them” as she explained why she acts dumb and like she doesn’t know the answer in class.

Yesterday I was alerted to this image by Villainesse editor Lizzy Marvelly:

CJ1G5emUsAATirHThe image was posted on the instagram account of a magazine which it states is for girls aged 14-17, the same demographic of girls I’m traveling around the country trying to encourage to study harder.

As you can imagine, the flat spot on my head is pretty large from me banging it against the desk after reading this. I decided to divert my energy to something more creative and instead took the image and added a few details of my own showing amazing New Zealand women who have succeeded in a specific subject.

CJ1G5ekUkAAuYmYWhy magazines designed for teenage girls are supporting and sharing images that encourage them not to study I will never know.  I’m not making a direct statement about this magazine but a general one about the media that our girls are surrounded with and shaped by.

Where are the glossy magazine articles of successful women who got there for their brains not their looks?

What language are we using around our girls and are we unconsciously shaping their future?  Although its an advert, I really like how this video shows the language I hear used around girls all the time.

I’m happy for you to call me a geek or a nerd, or as one recent newspaper did, a Techno-nut, but what would make me happier is if we could change those words to represent positive rather than negative attributes, so our girls can grow up proud to be smart.

Oh, and boys (men too), if you wanted to help at all, please share stories of the smart women that have helped to shape your life.


3 Responses to “Pretty or smart? Why do girls have to choose?”

  • Thing 1: Some of the most beautiful women I know are also some of the most intelligent women I know.

    Thing 2: That “nzgirlfriendmag” thing is terrible! Perhaps you (as Nanogirl, being in a position to do so) SHOULD be making a direct statement about/to the magazine.

    Thing 3: Keep up the good work! The world needs more geek girls! (From a guy proud to be called a geek…)

  • I’d like to do a shout out for Margaret Hamilton, computer scientist and mathematician, who wrote the code for the Apollo 11 mission, and basically invented the term “software engineering”.

    Also, Emmy Noether for her work in pure maths (ring theory) and her work that formed much basis for modern theoretical physics.
    Noether was not allowed to teach at Gottingen as a woman. David Hilbert used his name as a proxy so she could deliver lectures.

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