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March 10, 2016

This article was originally published on Medium. You can find the original with the commentshere.

Fighting Stereotype Threat With Jewelry

...and pi to 35 decimal places

I am a jewelry designer. But not the kind you’re thinking of. I don’t just make pretty baubles, and you won’t see my work on the racks at Target or Hot Topic. I make STEM jewelry — designs that have deeper meanings for people who love science, technology, engineering, and math.

When I was young, it wasn’t cool for girls to like math or science. As I grew up, messages discouraging girls from STEM became less overt and more subtle. By the time I was a math major in college in the late 1990's, I had learned that I could be taken seriously by my fellow students and professors, but it helped a lot if I looked the part of a gender-neutral math nerd. Best case scenario was a baggy t-shirt, hair pulled back, and no makeup. The more feminine I looked, the less my peers relied on me in study groups, and the more dismissive my professors were during office hours. It was an echo of the cheerleader vs geek dichotomy: you could be smart, or you could be beautiful. Not both.

And it wasn’t just them — I also FELT different when I wore makeup, dressed nicely, and did my hair. I had less confidence in my own work and found myself using more submissive body language. It was a bizarre thing to observe the correlation between appearance and behavior (both mine and others’) while also not understanding the mechanism or how to change it.

Experiences like mine are well-documented. Research has shown that reminding female test takers of their gender before a test can produce lower scores on math problems, a situation called “stereotype threat”. The reason stereotype threat occurs is still debated, but among the suggested culprits are anxiety about confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group (women in math, in this case), lowered performance expectations, and reduced working memory. What these all have in common is an internalized mental concept of the common stereotype that femaleness does not pair up with mathematical skill.

It’s not surprising that this stereotype exists. Whether or not there is a biological basis for gender differences in math ability (and the evidence increasingly suggests not), subtle and unconscious bias against women shows up in both academia and industry, from rating resumes to evaluating teaching performance to perceptions of creativity, and more. These biases impact women in many fields, not just math. But for reasons related to gender bias or not, women occupy only an estimated 9% to 16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields in the United States. It isn’t beyond imagination that the lack of female role models alone might be enough to subconsciously suggest to girls that math is just not what women do with their professional life… and certainly not something that women love.

Symbols and semiotics are not everything, but they are also not nothing.

When I started my business, Boutique Academia, I was determined to fight against stereotype threat and the subtle bias that suggests that math is for boys. I decided to do this by deliberately combining traditionally feminine objects (jewelry) with images, messages, and symbols from STEM disciplines. My goal has been to create wearable art that both inspires the wearer and sends the visual message that femininity and STEM are completely compatible. I wanted to co-opt prompts of gender that lead to stereotype threat, and instead use those same gender prompts (jewelry being associated with femininity) to create feelings of empowerment and knowledge mastery. Like a talisman against stereotype threat, I want this jewelry to say “Yes, I am female! And I love STEM and appreciate its beauty, complexity, and power. I have a place here. No matter what I look like or what cultural barriers I have to overcome, I belong.”

When I think of myself as a college junior and the only woman in a number of my upper division math classes, I wish I could have felt more comfortable in my own skin and gender. Whether my work will make a difference for others or not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that this venture started five years ago on one bookshelf in the bedroom of my student family housing apartment, and now it reaches museums and bookstores across the country and retails worldwide. This tells me that there is a hunger for meaning and beauty in our lives, including the physical items we surround ourselves with and what we wear. For women with an intellectual curiosity about science and math, a Fibonacci spiral necklace can symbolize much more than just a piece of jewelry. A molecular serotonin pendant is not just something pretty. And keeping 35 digits of pi on a chain over your heart can become both a reminder of the beauty and power of mathematics, and a subconscious signal to yourself and others that you love and belong in STEM.

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