Is This the Best Way to Encourage Young Women into Science?

The video “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” is meant to encourage girls to consider careers in the natural and physical sciences, presenting science, as the title suggests, as an area compatible with femininity and other “girl things”—make-up, high heels and fashion.

The video, produced by the European Commission, has been roundly criticized (check out the Twitter feed for #sciencegirlthing), both for presenting a stereotyped image of girls and for misrepresenting the scientific workplace (one tweeting female scientist wondered what will happen to any girls possibly drawn in by this campaign when they learn that, in many labs, open-toed heels violate safety codes).

About two years ago, I posted a cartoon that I think is worth reposting (via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal):

I suspect the makers of the video believe they are doing that first thing—trying to push back against the idea that science is unfeminine. Indeed, the video is part of the larger Science: It’s a Girl Thing! campaign, and the website also contains 12 profiles of female European scientists, which provide realistic depictions of women working in a range of scientific fields. But many viewers, including a lot of scientists (both women and men), see it as the second frame of the cartoon—another example of what I described as “superficial attempts to overcome the often structural constraints that keep women out of masculinized arenas of social life.”

Girls don’t just need to be told “you can do science and look cute too!” In fact, a post at New Scientist discusses the results of a recently published article by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa called “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls.” Betz and Sekaquaptewa found that images of conventionally feminine women in science fields actually demotivated female middle school students and decreased their perceptions of their likelihood of success in science and math. Girls appeared to see these images and, instead of thinking, “Oh, I can like makeup and clothes but still do science!” they thought, not unreasonably, “Oh, great, so I have to be smart and still meet all the demands of conventional femininity, too?” Instead of inspiring girls, the images were threatening, making them feel less likely to succeed in science and math. This effect was most pronounced for those girls who weren’t already interested in such fields—presumably the exact group campaigns such as Science: It’s a Girl Thing! are meant to attract. As the authors conclude, “Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalion-style makeovers … may do more harm than good.”

Cross-posted from Sociological Images.

TOP: Teaser video of Science: It’s A Girl Thing campaign courtesy of the European Commission. BOTTOM: Cartoon courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

Comments

  1. As I read and watch the critiques of this ad, I can’t help but wonder if the offensiveness of it is less to do with the fact that stereotypes are present and more to do with the fact that the stereotypes are simply inappropriate for the product. Successful women-targeted academic advertising campaigns usually depict women more easily juggling work and home responsibilities with their new jobs in whatever fields it may be. Perhaps if they’d depicted women coming home from STEM field jobs to hunky, well-paid husbands and happy blonde kids, the stereotypes would immediately become invisible and we’d mistake it for empowering.

  2. I think this is an adequate targetting tool for where society’s mindset is right now about the whole gender thing. If we start by gelling what is an admittedly attractive goal for most girls (fashion, makeup, style, etc.) with the more progressive idea (girl with brains in lab writing out complicated equations), we can eventually establish an ideal that allows for some sort of mediation. Marketing works in terms of ideals, but if the ideal is more progressive and realistic, then it’s more, well… ideal! I don’t know – it’s a step forward and I’d rather see this sort of thing than nothing at all, and that’s the truth.

  3. This reminds me of the thesis of the book Triple Bind:
    • Act sweet and nice
    • Be a star athlete and get straight A’s
    • Seem sexy and hot even if you’re not
    We’re not giving girls choices in their identity, we’re piling demands on TOP of an underlying premise that they have to look attractive first, and then achieve other things…

  4. I was on the “gender expert” group that provided recommendations to the EC as background for their work on the “Science: It’s a girl thing!” campaign. Four of us from the group issued a statement today which on the one hand is clearly critical of the teaser video that has received so much attention (clearly, if you speak “diplomat” at least) and on the other hand tries to say that the issue of recruiting more women to science is so crucial and so important that the EC shouldn’t get totally derailed by this snafu. Our statement was published at wp.me/p22Uc1-XC .

  5. I’d rather deprioritize femininity (and masculinity and gender roles) and let kids be themselves.
    This “girls can do science and math!” message seems like it would just underscore the fact that it’s generally and historically presumed that girls *can’t* do science and math, which would obviously be discouraging.
    The whole campaign should probably be directed at educators and parents to inform them that girls can learn anything boys can if adults just take the same time and effort.

Speak Your Mind

*