Which is why Pomerantz and Raby found the girls’ reactions to those comments so noteworthy. Some of them struggled, the researchers explained, to confront the boys for their sexist behavior, in part because they didn’t want to seem “unattractive or ugly” to boys—or to other girls. One 2014 study, consistent with Pomerantz’s and Raby’s findings, found that 14-year-old girls felt the need to play down their intelligence so they wouldn’t scare off the boys. “Popular femininity is a challenging path to navigate,” Raby said. “Some of them [said] that you can’t come across as too smart. You can’t be seen as putting up your hand all the time. You can’t be seen as a know-it-all. It’s important to take care of your social life.” In other words, it’s easier to let a sandwich comment slide and keep your mouth shut.
This tendency among girls to see popularity and intelligence as mutually exclusive, to position themselves as either a popular girl or a smart girl, is something that educators have been struggling with for a few decades, particularly since the advent of the global movement to get more girls into STEM fields. As the National Girls Collaborative Project has explained, numerous programs and initiatives have been created to move girls in the STEM direction only to burn out and fade away because of hampering cultural forces. While the number of women in STEM has increased since the 1980s, females today still hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
This problem is even more complicated for black girls, who experience sexism differently than their Latina, Asian, or white counterparts. As The Atlantic has reported, black girls are not only suspended at higher rates than white girls, they’re also disciplined more harshly. “When a darker-skinned African-American female acts up, there’s a certain concern about their boyish aggressiveness, that they don’t know their place as a female, as a woman,” Lance Hannon, a Villanova sociology professor who’s conducted research on the issue, told The New York Times in 2014.
For Melissa Lyken, a counselor at a nonprofit called At The Well that holds week-long summer conferences at colleges like Princeton and Swarthmore in an effort to empower black girls, the sentiments Hannon described aren’t uncommon. Lyken, who recently graduated from the University of Southern California-Santa Cruz where she worked on initiatives aimed at increasing diversity on campus, heard a range of stories from girls from all over the United States who described a multitude of sexist interactions with adults and their peers. Yet the girls didn’t use the word “sexism”; the term, Lyken said, wasn’t in their vocabulary.
“We know what we’re experiencing, but sometimes it’s hard to put a word to it,” Lyken told me, recalling the conversations she’s had with conference participants. Many of the girls she had spoken to at previous At The Well conferences told her that they were interested in STEM classes but were deterred by guidance counselors from taking those classes. Same with honors and AP classes. “They’re being told they should take lower-level courses or they should look into a community college as opposed to a university,” Lyken said. Some girls said they’d even started their own nonprofits at their respective high schools to reach out to fellow young women of color but were often questioned in a way that felt demeaning.