Pretty or smart? Why do girls have to choose?

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.



  1. Thank you Michelle for continuing to “bang your head against a brick wall” on behalf of our girls – we need you to keep going. You are getting people talking and the magazine responding. Thank you!!


  2. This makes me so sad. When I was in high school back in the 90’s, this is exactly what I experienced. I was a stellar student in math and science and computers, but was made fun of for being the only girl in the advanced computer class. Both boys and girls made fun of me and I had a hard time fitting in. I found it better to “dumb” myself down by not speaking up in class and not doing all my homework, and my grades started to fall. More than anything I wanted to fit in, and even though I was in a prestigious college preparatory private school, it seemed like all the popular kids who had social lives were in the lower level classes. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at home and I certainly didn’t read teen magazines, so it wasn’t the influence of media, but rather the influence of my peers and being in a co-ed school. Looking back, I SO wish I had instead gone to an all girls school so that my brain could have been more valued by my peers. After such a horrible experience in high school, I decided not to pursue a STEM field in university… my biggest regret in life. All those guys who were in my advanced computer science class in high school are now in very high positions at some of the largest tech companies in the world. I, on the other hand, have a hard time being taken seriously at work even to this day because I majored in English writing in university (even though I also now have an MBA – I finally went back to school at 32 to get an MBA to try to gain more respect at work, especially from guys, although its yet to really help). I’m now 37 and its just so sad that girls are experiencing this even more. I would hope that in the last 20 years things would change… but with mass media pushing looks over brains for girls, its gotten worse!! By the way, in the photo of you at a speaking engagement in this post, I noticed that in the slide behind you it uses the word “weapon.” I would suggest changing the word to “asset” – “Make knowledge your most powerful ASSET.” The word “weapon” conjures up violence and aggression… whereas the word “assets” makes one think of what’s inside of you, what you own about yourself. I think that would resonate more with girls. What you’re doing is fantastic – thanks!!


  3. I am fortunate to work in a lab with many intelligent women but they still make up a minority of senior technical positions. One collegue in particular has has a positive impact on our company, our lab and myself but she still feels she isn’t taken seriously.
    We have progressed but not far or fast enough!


  4. Shout out to Colleen Cann – someone that has mentored me for years (PhD chemist guy slurping from the coffee mug of management). As an aside, Dr Doug Heffernan, winner of the IPENZ engineering leadership award of the year 2014 also told the audience how much he owed Colleen for 20+ years during his acceptance speech. She’s an amazing woman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s