FeminismMedia SkepticismScienceSTEM

Science: it’s just a thing. Not a girl thing.

As hinted in our Reality Checks today, the EU has launched a campaign to convince girls to get into science. I’ve visited their website, and it’s not completely off-base. The profiles of women in science are a good idea. But the video teaser they’ve released is horrendous and offensive.

There is no woman actually doing science in any of the shots in the video. One woman is writing equations on a board. But the rest of them are smiling at the camera, laughing, and posing while images of bouncing model molecules, fuming flasks, and glowing circuits are cut between them.

How is this supposed to motivate young women and girls? This video depicts women as passive glamour shots pasted atop a science-y background. This video is not conveying the excitement of discovery, the thrill of figuring out the rules of nature, and the sense of wonder at the universe you feel when you are actually doing science. I would never have been motivated to enter science if this video was my depiction of scientific research. And even if I was motivated by the thought that I’d be great eye-candy next to all that lab equipment–well, let’s just say I’d be ill-equipped to succeed. That is not what science is about.

The video also has chosen most of its images from cosmetic science and chemistry*. Dripping lip glosses, colored powders flying off makeup brushes — okay, I get it. Us girls just love the Science of Getting Prettier!** What if she finds the mechanisms of viral transmission fascinating, and wants to be a virologist so that she can cure certain diseases? What if she enjoys tinkering with computers and loves the idea of writing code that can animate videos, create websites, and bring robots to life? Yes, it’s impossible to depict all of science in one 53-second clip — but a little more diversity in the depictions of “girl science” would probably be far more effective in getting young women interested in STEM fields.

I also dislike the tagline, which seems to betray exactly why this effort is so bad — it totally misunderstands the process of science, as well as relying on a bizarre marketing-based conception of what girls like. Science is not a girl thing. It is not gendered, and we shouldn’t try to make it the province of a specific gender. Trying to brand science as a feminine pursuit is not going to be the magical solution that balances the numbers of men and women in the fields of physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. (And as my lab mate noted, replacing the I in your logo with a lipstick tube doesn’t make science more appealing, either. Do they really think girls like everything that is pink and has lipstick on it?)

This reminds me of the misguided campaigns that Lego launched to rebrand itself as a girl’s toy. They’re just both completely missing the point.

So here’s my pitch to these people who want to motivate young women to be scientists. Don’t advertise to women as if their sole interests are whatever has been previously found profitable in market research: cosmetics, clothes, etc. And, when trying to make a public service campaign, don’t make it feel like another advertisement. I see enough of those already. Instead, treat young women and girls with the respect they deserve. Acknowledge the great potential in their intelligence, creativity, and passion, and make it known that they are helping advance the causes of humanity–the same way the Space Race inspired many young scientists (both men and women) to enter STEM fields. And make it clear that science is about discovering the truth and, often, about changing the world–not about pink things, not about lipstick, and not about trading in your sunglasses for lab safety goggles.


EDIT 6/22/2012: The European Commission has taken down the video. It has been replaced with a mirror.

* I just want to note that I completely respect cosmetic scientists and chemists. Makeup would otherwise be unsafe to put on my face, less effective, and more full of BS marketing that has no basis in reality.

** Not that there’s anything wrong with getting pretty. That’s just not the point, or the end game, of science.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!

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