Science *Is* a Girl Thing, and Doesn’t Want (or Need) Your Pink!Lipstick!Sexyposing! Branding

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?

By Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

13 replies on “Science *Is* a Girl Thing, and Doesn’t Want (or Need) Your Pink!Lipstick!Sexyposing! Branding”

I just watched this (without sound, I’m in lab), and that turned me off science! I would not want to do science if I had to look like that. I’m dressed up today, do you want to know how? I am wearing a bracelet. It is a string bracelet, and has wooden beads on it. That’s as dressed up as I get. Blah.

Why all the makeup in the ad? I agree, girls who are thinking of going into STEM fields already know they face obstacles, and most don’t want to wear makeup everyday. This would just make them feel more alienated. My response mirrors Brigit’s: I’m making “potions” in the backyard!

That’s an incredibly thoughtless and offensive way to attempt to make more girls interested in STEM fields. My response as a kid would probably have been along the lines of “Makeup? Screw that shit – I’m here with my chemistry and dissecting kits, along with all sorts of “ingredients” from the kitchen and backyard trying to make “potions and cures”. Makeup … grumble grumble grumble”.

The US did a way cooler “Girls in STEM” video, one that would’ve probably have me going “I wanna do that, and that!” when I was a kid.

I watched the video without sound.  It just makes the women look idiotic and brainless.  I agree, to show girls that science is for them they should show women (real women) doing science!!  (And not just the obligatory female working with a petri dish or the centrifuge.)


I don’t even use lipstick. Does this mean I’m closer to being a scientist or further away from it? Is it necessary for being a girl-scientist? Do men need chiseled faces to become boy-scientists? Why won’t anyone come with the tough idea of people being scientists?

I second the motion for more ladies in physical sciences.  I love the idea of physics, philosophically, but I’m a chemist, and that’s my thing.  I definitely would’ve been turned off by this as a child, though, since I’ve never been into makeup.  It just seems thoroughly pointless unless they were trying to sell the girls as the formulation chemists for the makeup they’re posing with.  In which case, they should show them doing the chemical equations or the mixing or something. 

If you’d shown me that video without an explanation, I would have thought it was a very crappy ad for a makeup line. Aargh. I very much agree with all the other commenters that if I had seen that video as a kid I would have given STEM fields a wide berth.

This article reminds of a field trip I went on in elementary school to a science museum, where we all attended a presentation about women in science. They started off having all the kids draw “a scientist” on a sheet of paper. They then asked how many of us had drawn “a man in a lab coat working with chemicals?”, and pretty much everyone had. They used that as a launching point to give a lecture on awesome women scientists in history, and also about how there is so much more to science than a lab full of test tubes. THAT was an extremely effective way of approaching the subject- confronting students of both genders about their biases and then showing us examples of how awesome diversity in science is.

I really hate the idea that women aren’t interested in masculine things because the things aren’t feminine enough. Sure, I didn’t decide to go into a STEM area, but I also never shied away from exploring those areas when I could. (Case in point, in my senior year in undergraduacy, I took the physics course meant for physics majors because 1) I could, and 2) I was trying to qualify for general honors at my university and I needed a “hard” science course)

As a rather unfeminine woman who, in her childhood, rebelled at doing anything feminine simply because it was feminine, had people tried to “sell” me science like that, I probably would have developed a distaste for it.


Holy crap. If I had seen that video when I was a kid I might never have become the awesome lady fish ecologist I am today. I probably would have believed that that kind of pink lipstick, posing, fashion would be expected of me, too, or that even in science I wouldn’t be able to find a refuge from the girls like that. Granted, I will still fill the role as lady-scientist and wear heels and lipstick when I present at conferences, and if I wanted to I could wear that at the lab, too. But that video- that’s not what science looks like.

Good grief, no.  I’m currently holed up at my local cafe, greasy hair stuck through with half a dozen bobby pins and sticking out everywhich way, without a speck of makeup, in jeans that seriously need to be washed and a marginally flattering shirt, crunching through a bunch of data analysis on my laptop.  I *love* that this is acceptable workwear — I can just do my job without worrying about looking acceptably feminine.  I can, and do, spiff up on occasion, but it have absolutely nothing to do with my ability to do my job.  I’ve yet to find a group of people who’re less concerned with public presentation than physicists, so I’m not pressured to be feminine-presenting by my peers or profs.  If I saw that video when I was a teenager, with minimal exposure to working scientists, I’d not want to go anywhere *near* science, let alone slog through several degrees in it.

Relatedly, I highly recommend everyone have a look at — it’s stories of how people got into science in often convoluted ways, and how what we think of as “what a scientist looks like” is often not at all accurate.

It’s not enough that women are achieving and getting into STEM fields, what matters is if they are wearing makeup and look sexy decoding the human genome. Grrrrrrrrrr.  When will society allow women to be just human beings. Not objects, or playthings, or baby makers or possessions. Just actual human beings.

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