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Would you rather be sexy or smart?

By Carol Costello
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
  • Carol Costello: When girls reach age of 6, why do brains take a back seat to beauty?
  • Costello: "Big Bang Theory" and Kim Kardashian send messages to girls about success
  • Studies show across 65 countries girls outperformed boys in STEM fields
  • Costello: Maybe it's our culture that's making girls turn away from math and science

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Would you rather be sexy or smart?

I hate that dumb question. Of course you'd rather be smart.

Although just the other day, Debbie Sterling, a Stanford engineering graduate and successful entrepreneur, told me, "Growing up as a little girl I was always very smart and I got good grades, but I always wanted people to tell me that I was pretty. Like to me that was the ultimate success."

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

Sexy sells. It can make you rich. And stunningly successful.

It wasn't Kim's brain that launched the Kardashian empire.

Wait -- I hear you: Kim is smart. She turned a sex tape into a hit reality TV show. She developed a cosmetics line. She tried to break the Internet. But it's not like Kim goes around urging little girls to use their brains. She is sending them a decidedly different kind of message.

So, again, how would you answer -- sexy or smart?

Eileen Pollack, who was one of the first women to earn a bachelor's degree in physics from Yale, is writing a book called "The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boy's Club." It aims to expose factors that impact women's access to careers in science, technology, engineering and math -- the fields known collectively as STEM.

She had this to say: "First of all, that the question would even be asked -- I can see all the anxiety that it poses. Why is that even a question? Why isn't it assumed that they can be both? This isn't a critique of your question, because that question is the story of my life."

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I can understand that. Pollack, as a Yale physics pioneer, isn't speaking to us from the grave, but from the heart. Why is it, she wonders, when girls reach the age of 6, brains take a back seat to beauty even if they have both? "If it's your professor or employer, I guess you want to be smart," Pollack said. "But not if there is a guy in the room. In America, nobody's boyfriend wants them to be smarter than he is, and no one wants to admit it."

Cue the tabloids. If Kim Kardashian really is smart, then why is her husband, music mogul Kanye West, now supposedly controlling her empire? Even if that's not true, the narrative exists and it says something about how girls may, in their heart of hearts, answer that question.

Sterling and I talked about how to persuade more girls to skip the Kim/princess route and revel in their natural curiosity. It's why Sterling created her toy company, GoldieBlox. "Growing up as a little girl, I certainly had no interest in becoming a scientist or mathematician or engineer," Sterling said. "I thought it was a boys-only club for geniuses. And I pictured this old white man in a lab coat with no friends."

Goldie, the doll who rules the GoldieBlox world, isn't beautiful like Princess Anna, not sexy like Barbie, but brainy, curious and quirky, like Sterling herself. And when I say quirky, I don't mean like the brainy women on "The Big Bang Theory."

I don't think many little girls clamor to be like Amy or Bernadette. Sexy wins the day on that show. Penny, a community college dropout, is incurious and kinda, well, dippy. But she is sexy. And she continually wins the sexy, brilliant male nerd: Leonard Hofstadter. Poor Bernadette is stuck with Howard, a man Penny once described as "disgusting." And Amy? Well ...

I bring up "The Big Bang Theory" and lump it in with Kim Kardashian because both send a strong message to impressionable girls -- and to the rest of us. I'm not saying they are solely to blame for the Wiki-How site that instructs girls to be smart without being nerdy, but something in our culture is causing girls to tune out math and science.

In many countries, girls now outperform boys in science, but not in the United States, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, reported by The New York Times. Sterling says that means "it's a cultural issue in the United States rather than a gender one."

Just look at Fabiola Gianotti. She is a physicist from Milan, Italy. Gianotti was just elected to lead the most prestigious particle physics research center in the world, CERN. Or, as Vanity Fair describes it, a "$9 billion cathedral of science" that could unlock the secrets of the universe.

"I grew up in environment that had more women in science," Gianotti told me. When I asked her the sexy-smart question she sounded puzzled. "I hope women and men in general value their brain. The brain is much more useful in life than beauty."

Interestingly, Gianotti sees physics in a decidedly feminine way. "I like the beauty of physics," she told me. "Nature is beautiful, it is my second soul to music."

When I asked her who inspired her, Gianotti did not hesitate. Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who researched radioactivity is her idol. "She (Curie) had a domestic way of doing physics," Gianotti told me. "She had a lab in her house. She could prepare dinner in her kitchen, then move into her lab. She could have a normal life. Really amazing."

Note Gianotti said "a normal life." That's important because American girls like normal. Pollack points to a 2010 American Mathematical Society study that determined why so few women in the United States became physicists, mathematicians or computer scientists to prove the point.

One reason -- and I stress only one -- is that girls are not attracted to the "asocial" geek image associated with the sciences. They find the culture "unsatisfying."

"Parents don't want their kids to be nerdy," Pollack told me. "For women, even if she's nerdy enough to be Steve Jobs, she's undateable."

See -- it all comes back to that not-so-easy question. "There's still this Americanized version of being too smart in anything," Pollack continued. "You have to look like a porn star in eighth grade. There's this huge obsession with romance, being a princess, a supermom."

Maybe Sterling's little Goldie doll, who actively maligns America's cultural definition of beauty in online videos, can help. In "Goldie vs. the Big Sister Machine," a woman states: "You are beauty and beauty is perfection." Identically dressed little girls walk the "runway" as another little girl, in sneakers, blows that myth out of the water. As Sterling puts it, "I was hoping that if girls looked at Goldie and they wanted to be like her and do what she does, they might value their brains as much as their beauty."

So, sexy or smart? Come on, ask your daughter which is more important. Then ask her why.

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