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Sian Beilock Ph.D.

Why Pretty Girls Can’t Do Math

For women, valuing romance means devaluing math and science success

It's that time of year again. Across the country, students are going back to school. For many, September means new text books, new pencils and new school clothes - the latter falling under the scrutiny of watchful parents this academic year because of some questionable slogans that seem to perpetuate stereotypes about girls and intelligence.

A few months ago, there was a huge backlash to a David & Goliath T-shirt that, in pink bubble letters, read "I'm too pretty to do math" and just last week JC Penny's pulled a T-shirt from its website clearly marketed to girls that read "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me."

To some these slogans are merely a joke. To others they suggest that we haven't moved very much beyond the early 1990's when Mattel produced a doll - the Teen Talk Barbie - that, when a cord was pulled, would say things like, "Will we ever have enough clothes?" and "Math class is tough!"

But, regardless of whether you fall into the "It's not a big deal" or the "I'm horrified that these shirts are being marketed to young girls" camp, one thing is true: The slogans that have been the subject of so much controversy seem to accurately reflect girls' and women's beliefs, at least according to new findings by psychologist Laura Park and her colleagues at SUNY Buffalo.

In the August issue of the journal, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , Park shares the results of a series of studies with college-age women in which she finds that when women think about romance, they become less interested in studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. College-age men, however, can get interested in romance without any impact on their engagement with math and science.

In a first series of studies that Park conducted, college freshman viewed images or overheard conversations related to either love (e.g., romantic restaurants, candles, beach sunsets) or intelligence (e.g., libraries, eyeglasses, studying for a test). Women (but not men) exposed to the romantic images and conversations were subsequently found in surveys to have less positive feelings toward STEM subjects and had less of a desire to major in STEM fields than women exposed to the intelligence topics. This is despite the fact that many of the women in the study had indicated an interest in studying math and science prior to the experiment.

In a follow-up study, Park gave females taking a college math course a personal digital assistant (PDA) hand-held computer on which they could record, each night, their goals for that day and what they had accomplished along with how romantically desirable they felt. They might log notes about someone they liked, how pretty they felt or how much math homework they had gotten through.

What Park found was that on days when the women were focused on romance, they engaged in more romantic activities and felt more desirable, but were less focused on doing their math homework or studying for their math class. And, there was even a spillover effect. On days when women felt the most attractive and desirable, the next day these women were not as interested in their math class.

So, just as the T-shirts suggest, there seems to be a disconnect between being an attractive female and succeeding in academics. And, until young girls aren't sold the message that it's either/or, it's likely that nothing is going to change.

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Park et al. (2011). Effects of Everyday Romantic Goal Pursuit on Women's Attitudes Toward Math and Science. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1259-1273.