Sexualized gender stereotypes predict girls’ academic self-efficacy and motivation

From International Journal of Behavioral Development

Published in Association with International Society for the Study of Behavioural Development


By Christia Spears Brown

“Girls live in a culture in which they see sexualized images of women and girls everywhere – on magazine covers at the grocery store, on Instagram and YouTube, on billboards, in movies, television, and music videos. According to research, by elementary school, children begin to stereotype those highly popular images of sexy women and girls as high in status, but not very smart. For both children and adults, being sexy is highly valued, but is seemingly incompatible with being smart. By the time kids enter middle school, they often believe that girls should be valued primarily for their sexual appeal and that boys should be focused solely on girls as sexual objects. 

In our research, we wondered whether these beliefs – the belief that girls’ value comes from their sexual appeal to boys – has negative consequences for early adolescent girls’ academic attitudes. Do girls in middle school who believe that being sexy is critical to their sense of self become less motivated and confident about their academic abilities over time, internalizing the idea that sexy and smart are incompatible? Or, could it be that girls who lack academic motivation decide to focus their energies on other, non-academic qualities, such as their sexual appeal? Furthermore, we wondered whether these stereotypes only impacted the girls who thought that this type of gender stereotype applied to them, those who perceive themselves to be very typical for their gender.


To test these questions, we measured middle schoolers’ beliefs about being sexualized (what we refer to as sexualized gender stereotypes), their academic motivation, confidence, and abilities, and their perceptions of how typical for their gender they feel. We gave them surveys and tests in school when they were in the seventh grade and again in the eighth grade. We found that the more girls believed in sexualized gender stereotypes in the seventh grade, the lower their academic self-confidence was in the eighth grade, even when we factored out their actual academic ability and earlier self-confidence. But, in what is likely a destructive cycle, girls who were low in seventh grade academic self-confidence were also more likely to believe in those sexualized gender stereotypes later in eighth grade. One belief seems to lead to the other. Girls’ academic motivation also seems harmed by their gendered beliefs. At least among the girls who believed that they were very typical for a girl, the more they believed in sexualized gender stereotypes, the less academically motivated they became over time.


The results of our study suggest that the ubiquitous sexualization of girls may have consequences beyond appearance and sexuality – namely, academic consequences with potentially long-term ramifications. This has implications for the many academic interventions focused on increasing girls’ interest and performance in certain challenging STEM domains. Most importantly, the current study suggests that academic interventions need to be mindful of the broader culture in which girls are developing and recognize that girls’ desire for social status (via sexualized attractiveness) may be inadvertently limiting their perceived capabilities and motivation for challenging academic pursuits.”


Article details

Sexualized gender stereotypes predict girls’ academic self-efficacy and motivation across middle school
Christia Spears Brown
First Published July 15, 2019 Research Article
DOI: 10.1177/0165025419862361
International Journal of Behavioral Development