A new survey of the career aspirations of British girls aged 13-18 done by the organization New Outlooks in Science and Engineering found that the majority picked beauty over brains. While 32% of those surveyed were interested in becoming a fashion model, 29% were interested in being an actress, and 20% were interested in being a beautician, only 14% were interested in becoming a scientist, and a mere 4% were interested in becoming an engineer (note: girls were permitted to select more than one answer).
I am saddened but not surprised at these results. Pop culture very much values style over substance, particularly when it comes to women. Female celebrities popular among teen girls such as Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, the actresses on The Hills, and so on often give the appearance of vacuousness (even if they may actually be not quite as dumb as their public personas would indicate). Television portrayals of women tend more towards the walking clothes hangers of America's Next Top Model than the braininess of Dr. Amita Ramanujan on Numb3rs. Far more teens could likely name last year's American Idol winner (Jordin Sparks) than could name either the current Secretary of State or the female member of the U.S. Supreme Court (Condoleeza Rice and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, respectively).
Given that we are now three-and-a-half decades past the landmark passage of Title IX, I find this state of affairs very depressing. Today's girls are so lucky that they do not face the barriers to participation in scientific and technical fields that stood in the path of previous generations of women. True, more still needs to be done to allow for a better work-life balance in scientific and technical careers (an issue that disproportionately affects women although it's becoming important to an increasing number of men as well). But the main thing today keeping girls from becoming scientists and engineers is themselves.
So long as girls go for glamor over contributing to the betterment of society, we're likely to see a continuation of the gender gap in the sciences and engineering. And that's really a shame :-(