Saturday, 23 June 2012

Making Science "A Girl Thing"

This all broke yesterday, when I was rather busy trying not to cry as I said goodbye to my A2 class. An A2 class that, by and large, are off to study sciences at university, and who do not in any way identify with the teenagers portrayed in the video below. When I did get a chance to catch up with the catastrofuck on Twitter, this is what hit me:

This is one of the worst ways of getting girls interested in STEM careers that I've seen in some time. Certainly since the pink geek glasses and microscopes. The video quite rightly attracted the scorn of a number of scientists and teachers. A number of criticisms were made, summarised below.
  1. That sort of clothing would be a health & safety disaster in the majority of laboratories, despite what CSI suggests.
  2. There is a hell of a lot more to science than knowing what goes in makeup.
  3. They still can't resist a man in a white coat looking down a microscope.
  4. It's promoting short skirts and makeup to pre-teen girls.
  5. The "i" in "science" is a lipstick, FFS. I'd almost have been tempted to download some of the free posters for the lab, but for the lipstick.
  6. The website is full of stereotypes and "avatars" of science - inaccurate Rutherford models of atoms, flasks and beakers of random coloured liquids, and some mathematical equations that I don't think make any sense.
  7. It detracts from the actual message of the campaign.
  8. It's fucking patronising.
The unfortunate thing is that the profiles the EU project is promoting are really interesting. Paul and I were saying that all that was really needed as a teaser, was each scientist introducing herself with a few caption slides in between. And ditch the lipstick.

The people behind the campaign did remove the teaser video, realising that it was detrimental to the message they were trying to convey, but I fear the damage is done. For one thing, even if the aim of the teaser (cynically) was to get people talking on the basis there's no such thing as bad publicity, the teenagers just weren't present for the conversation. We were all adults on Twitter, bitching, swearing or contributing to the hilarious #scienceboything hashtag. Some adults reported back what their children thought of the video, but that was it.

Sophia Collins, who developed the I'm A Scientist concept, had some more constructive things to say. I'm A Scientist has been without a doubt one of the most effective means at my disposal of getting all my students, male and female, interested in science as a career. Seeing a range of different faces doing interesting things in science is powerful. And they don't all have to have perfect manicures, glamorous wardrobes and crippling high heels. A day or two earlier, @teachingofsci linked to an abstract for a paper entitled "My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls". I'd love to see a copy of the whole paper, but I'm most struck by this line in the abstract:
"Study 2 suggested that feminine STEM role models' combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls."
So for all that, the EU campaign could end up having the opposite effect, as teenage girls feel even more pressure to conform to a certain formula even within the STEM field. We're also facing a deeper look at the "macho culture" in the sciences, since it is turning women off to science.

Could we not just stand to improve the range of scientists that children learn about at school? Maybe not cutting the Researchers in Residence scheme would have been a good idea. And maybe employers could put in decent equality policies to silence sexist jokes, harassment, assault and discrimination against wormen.

Until then, I will stand at the front of my lab, refusing to be manicured, made up and tottering around on high heels, and I will be the role model my female (and indeed male) students need - unapologetically enthusiastic about science, full of high expectations for them, and their biggest cheerleader.


  1. I could easily see a redesign of their 50 second "teaser" with a variety of young women of different "looks" (sporty, nerdy, outdoorsy, tomboy, etc., etc., etc., including the glam kid-model look they went with) being interested in--and actually doing--all kinds of science. Looking at telescopes; snorkeling/scubaing; looking at rocks and fossils; doing computer models; and yes, working with test tubes, beakers, and microscopes.

    Sure, it would still be somewhat vapid, but at least the message (all sorts of young women do all sorts of science) beats the current one (pencil thin glam girls can pretend to like science-y things, too, *giggle giggle*).

    1. Yes, even Palaeontologist Barbie was less patronising, despite her little pink rock-hammer! There's so much more they could have done with this.

  2. I know quite a few female scientists. Only one works for a make-up company, and IIRC her background is chemical engineering, and I suspect her choice of career has rather more to do with the job opportunities available, than how much she likes lipstick.

    The intention is quite clearly very laudable, and the profiles they've chosen, while clearly focusing on "conventionally attractive" white people, is something I could really get behind. I absolutely loved the line about how on Friday the researcher in question didn't know what a gene did, but on Monday she did.

    50 seconds of Joy Reidenberg up to her navel in whale guts will do more to inspire young women to do science than 8 hours of Girls Aloud knock-off videos.

    1. I think the science of cosmetics is fascinating - I don't think it need have anything at all to do with liking makeup.

      I think Joy Reidenberg is inspirational. I am highly envious of her getting to play around in whale guts.

  3. MischievousBastard25 June 2012 at 16:05

    Fuck CSI.
    Fuck pristine lab coats.
    Fuck false inference.
    Fuck doing field work in Armani and heels.
    Fuck "girls can look model-glam while doing sciencey things and being fabulous".
    Fuck learning from a microscope with no slide in it (Our Dave owes me a cider every time he sees this happen on TV crime shows).
    Fuck inaccessible role models.
    Fuck "just because".
    Fuck never being told what Science really is - a career where nobody minds you getting a little mucky in pursuit of finding out what happens when you give the Universe a poke.
    Fuck chickenshit campaigns that pander to the warped notion that girls are led by "the pink and sparkly" instead of challenging it for the brainwashed straw man that it is.

    Fuck this, I'm off down the Tavern!


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