Preteen Girls Express Career Goals That Rely on Math and Science

Who says girls can’t do math? Interviews with preteens show most girls aim for careers that rely on math, science, or both fields. Girls also set goals in terms of not one, but multiple occupations. Pretty Brainy, Inc., is leading the interviews.
May 12, 2010 - PRLog -- This spring, colleges in Colorado and Wyoming are graduating fewer females than males in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM disciplines. At the Colorado School of Mines, males make up 75 percent of the student population, for example. And in the Department of Applied Mathematics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, males comprise approximately 76 percent of undergraduates majoring in the subject. Girls in the graduating class of 2018 and beyond, however, will reverse the trend if they follow through on their plans for the future. “I want to be a marine biologist and study Orcas,” one Colorado 10-year-old recently wrote at a career exploration day, and interviews with girls by a Colorado start-up indicate that most girls before age 11 express their aspirations in terms of not one, but multiple disciplines, including math and science.

“I want to be a veterinarian and write a novel,” a 9-year-old wrote.

Another 10-year-old said, “I want to make a store that sells bugs and shows how nature is a lot more interesting than you think.”

These and additional statements show that girls picture themselves in careers that embrace math and science — fields in which they traditionally have been discouraged, says Heidi Olinger, chief executive officer, Pretty Brainy, Inc.

“Girls are as naturally inclined toward math and science as they are in ‘softer’ studies, such as language and literature,” says Olinger. She continues, “When an eight-, or nine-, or ten-year-old speaks up about what she wants to do when she grows up, pay attention. She is speaking from a part of herself that knows she can accomplish anything.”

Olinger advises parents and teachers to note the career declarations girls make before they reach age 11, when, by contrast, their self-confidence and –esteem begin to shrink. “Before a girl enters the hurricane of adolescence and self-doubt, her vision for her life is rooted in self-confidence.” She continues, “At about age eleven, the strong image a girl has had of herself begins to suffer.” She cites the research of Nadya Fouad, distinguished professor and vocational psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through her work on a 3-year study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Fouad concludes that the expectations and support of parents and teachers are fundamental to girls’ engagement with and academic success in math and science.

Olinger first noticed girls expressing their career aspirations in terms of multiple, combined occupations nearly 10 years ago. In 2009 she began to record what they say. One of her favorite statements comes from a 6-year-old who said, “I want to be a cowgirl-astronaut-princess.” A first-grader in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said she wants to be a rancher-rock star.

The interviews with girls are part of Olinger’s responsibility, as she sees it, in designing preteen clothing and accessories. Under the brand name Pretty Brainy, the designs incorporate math problem-solving and biographies of accomplished women to capitalize on girls’ energy and interests during their preteen years. Olinger calls what she creates “smart fashion for smart girls.” A former educator who, in 2008, received the Boettcher Foundation’s Teacher Recognition Award, Olinger, in wanting to emphasize the fun and enjoyment in learning, positions the graphic print on her girls’ printed tees like “crib sheets,” or academic notes that face a girl when she’s wearing Pretty Brainy.

Girls that Olinger and an intern at Pretty Brainy have interviewed range in age from 6 to 11 years old. Live conversations with girls have taken place in person and by telephone. Olinger also asks groups of girls to anonymously write down their response to the following prompt, “When I grow up, this is what I want to do.” The prompt is designed to allow girls to express goals in addition to career aspirations. One 7-year-old told Olinger, “I want to be a vet and go to Paris.” A 9-year-old from Loveland, Colorado, wrote, “I want to do sculpting and be a small business owner.”

“Approximately 77 percent of girls we have interviewed express goals that will require the study of math, science or both,” says Olinger. “And though it is a myth that ‘girls can’t do math,’ old stereotypes slowly die.” This is why, she explains, Pretty Brainy has designed math problem-solving into its first product on the market, girls’ printed tees. The idea is to keep a girl’s confidence about doing math literally front and center on the shirt she wears. Olinger first had the idea for the girls’ printed tees as a way to help a young niece maintain her self-confidence and aspirations through adolescence.

Olinger had a hunch that her niece would stay confident and maintain interest in her goals if she remained engaged in the math and science studies she would need. Fouad’s research supports the point. When girls feel confident that they can do math and science, it fuels their interest in the subjects, says Fouad. “And confidence comes in the doing,” says Olinger, quoting famous first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Girls who do not learn math, says Carol Bartz, chief executive officer, Yahoo, “are closing [themselves] off to three-quarters of the careers in America.” Bartz made the statement in an interview for Forbes Woman in the fall 2009 issue of the magazine, which profiled women executives who have science degrees and are leading some of the top companies in the world. Bartz holds a B.S. in computer science from the University of Wisconsin.

“Why wouldn’t we want our children to achieve their greatest goals?” Olinger rhetorically asks. “Why wouldn’t we want them to do and be their very best?” Role models, including Bartz, have emerged, and the support of the NSF, for example, in uncovering what educationally must take place for girls to succeed at math and science is significant. To do the right thing in helping girls succeed, the combination of efforts must continue, says Olinger.

Thirty years ago, females made up 5 percent of the student body at Colorado School of Mines, for example. The number of female undergraduates is now 5 times what it was in the 1980s, and if more girls realize the career aspirations they are declaring today, in time the ratio of males to females in STEM disciplines may achieve near balance.

“Pretty Brainy will continue to interview girls about their aspirations,” says Olinger, “and if girls pursue the careers in math and science in which they are picturing themselves, we can look forward to graduation rates reflecting their progress in realizing their dreams.”  

Pretty Brainy will keep designing preteen girls’ clothes with this vision: girls will succeed.

Incorporated in 2008 and based in Fort Collins, Colorado, Pretty Brainy is online at The site includes an online girls’ clothing boutique of ’tween fashion, resources for parents on raising a ’tween daughter, and “stuff for smart girls,” including a short list of good books for ’tweens.

Pretty Brainy, Inc., entered commerce in December 2008 with this mission: to raise the expectations and perception of what girls are capable of in the world.

In August 2009, Total Elegance Boutique (, a family-owned business in Casper, Wyoming, became the first retailer in the United States to carry the brand. The Main Street U.S.A. business Lyon’s Corner Drug in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, became the first retailer in Pretty Brainy’s home state to carry the line.

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About Pretty Brainy, Inc.: Incorporated in October 2008, Pretty Brainy designs products expressly for smart, active girls 7 to 14 years old. Our mission: to raise the perception and expectations of what girls are capable of. This encompasses girls' expectations of themselves and the world's expectations of girls. Our medium: 'tween fashion. Our inspiration: smart 'tween girls.

Our 'tween girls' website,, presents a girls' clothing boutique, resources for parents on raising a 'tween daughter, and "stuff for smart girls," including recommended activities, a short list of good books for 'tweens, and posts by our 'tween blogger, Gianna.

For smart girls of all ages, Pretty Brainy creates women's sizes, too.

In building a brand that respects smart girls and grown-ups, Pretty Brainy works from this ideology: "Respect Others, Respect the Earth, Respect Yourself," and we strive to select vendors based on their practice of corporate social responsibility.
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