The gender gap in science is the cause of much gnashing of teeth and the development of all sorts of programs and campaigns to reverse decades of insistent, persistent, and continuing “math and science = boy stuff = not girl stuff; stay away” messaging towards girls and women. Some of these efforts are great (like the day program for Grade Six girls run by the local supercomputers’ administration I volunteered at a few months ago), but some of them not only wildly miss the mark, but wind up reinforcing the notions they’re ostensibly battling against.
Case in point: “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” which is an initiative by the Women in Research and Innovation branch of the European Commission. Watch this, and prepare to pick your jaw up off the floor.
The video focuses on three girls who strut towards the camera against a pink (of course) background, causing the (older) boy (man?) at the microscope to peer over his googles at them in a sort of “oh my, what’s this all about?” sort of way. They strike a pose, and the camera cuts to, wait for it…. lipstick! Because lipstick is so science-y! Then there’s some beakers with dry ice, what looks like nailpolish dropping off a brush, blue powder being blown off a blush brush, and more posing and strutting. There’s the obligatory “equations on a clear pane” shot, a petri dish slides across the screen, and a giant H for hydrogen (which visually just doesn’t fit with this at all, but that’s really neither here nor there at this point), but visually it’s dominated by strutting, posing, and makeup. The science is secondary, and it’s worth noting that, while this is a video intended to get girls interested in science, the only shot of a girl doing science is buried three-quarters of the way through, when one of the girls is writing equations on the clear panes. By contrast, a male is shown doing science not two seconds into the video.
The visual message is crystal clear: girls pose, look pretty, blow kisses, wear high heels and makeup, but they don’t really do science. They stand around science, vamp at science, but they don’t do science. The logo at the end even has a lipstick for the “i” in science. This is just another lightbulb in the lighting tore of expectations and pressures of cartoonishly stereotypical femininity. Saying “women scientists are HOT, not frumpy!” is not a step forward.
And there’s science to back that up (done by women – hoisted on your own petard, video!). Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa did some research about how couching science in stereotypically feminine terms and images impacts girls’ view of science and interest in pursuing it. Here’s their abstract (the full article linked is behind a paywall, but if you want to read it, comment or message me and I’ll send you a copy):
[blockquote align=”left” variation=”slategrey”]Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are labeled unfeminine, a costly social label that may discourage female students from pursuing these fields. Challenges to this stereotype include feminine STEM role models, but their counterstereotypic-yet-feminine success may actually be demotivating, particularly to young girls. Study 1 showed that feminine STEM role models reduced middle school girls’ current math interest, self-rated ability, and success expectations relative to gender-neutral STEM role models and depressed future plans to study math among STEM-disidentified girls. These results did not extend to feminine role models displaying general (not STEM-specific) school success, indicating that feminine cues were not driving negative outcomes. Study 2 suggested that feminine STEM role models’ combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls. The results call for a better understanding of feminine STEM figures aimed at motivating young girls.[/blockquote]
This makes perfect sense to me. On the one hand you’re saying to girls “break through barriers, push against gendered expectations, and put up with the onslaught of pressures and nastiness that’s going to get slung your way for trying to do that” (i.e., “girls can do science”), but if at the same time you’re branding it with PINK and sticking all the usual trappings of femininity onto it, you’re erasing the message. Girls aren’t stupid: they know the gauntlet they wind up running when they act “unfeminine.” Why would any of them try to run that gauntlet, while at the same time trying to conform to the pressures the gauntlet is presenting? That sounds exhausting, and being a girl is hard enough as it is.
[pullquote2 quotes=”true” align=”right” textColor=”#751313″]They show ordinary looking women talking about their research and how they got interested in science as kids and putting science in a light that a girl watching could look at it and go, “I could do that!”[/pullquote2]By contrast, the website isn’t bad, though initially when this went around last week, the page labelled “Dream Jobs” read only, “Check back later” or some other depressingly apt phrase. (There’s content up there now, unsurprisingly – this campaign has caught a lot of very deserved flack, partially because of that blank page.) There’s a page highlight some areas of cutting edge research, and how important they are to modern society. I initially had a bit of a beef in that the emphasis seems to be on more feminine fields of science (biology, health research, etc.), but I (a physicist) never think there’s enough physics visibility. There are videos up with Actual Lady Scientists, which are actually pretty good (and focus more on physical scientists, allaying my qualms). They show ordinary looking women talking about their research and how they got interested in science as kids and putting science in a light that a girl watching could look at it and go, “I could do that!” That’s the sort of thing that would make a good flagship video: something that puts science, not femininity, in the spotlight and portrays it as something that girls do and that girls can do. The flagship video fails miserably on all three counts, though the website does a much better job of this.
Which leads me to wonder who made the flagship video. It doesn’t seem to match with the rest of the site (though the whole site uses the lipstick-laden logo). I saw someone on Twitter (unfortunately, I can’t find it now) say that they (a scientist) were on the advisory committee for the video, and the company that made the video ignored every bit of input they gave, and given how incredibly out of touch the video is, I’m inclined to believe them. (I didn’t even mention how outdated the style of it was – it looked to me like an educational video from the mid-1980s.) Certainly no-one with even the slightest idea of they target audience (and the pressures and context in which they live) would think that this is an effective video. I’m pleased that there’s been such an uproar about it, and the video’s been pulled; I’m hoping the uproar (which, I should note, has been loud from men as well as women) will lead to some serious rethinking of the initiative’s strategy.
And can we please, for the love of all that is holy and graphically pleasing, wipe the scourge of lipstick font from the face of the planet?