Science is not a girl thing or a boy thing – it’s a brain thing

The European Commission came up with the laudable idea of attracting more girls to choose to study science. As part of a wider campaign they launched a video which was met with such universal condemnation that it has had to be removed from sight. There’s no way to defend the video really. It is a failure; from its direct pandering to stereotypes of how women should appear to its indirect pandering to stereotypes of how scientists are generally represented. The final nail in the coffin is the use of a lipstick to represent the ‘i’ in science.

But the failure of a video should not detract from the underlying problem. It is increasingly hard to persuade boys, let alone girls, to study science or mathematical subjects . My kids do programming, robotics and a fun science class as extra-curricular activities at their primary school. Over the years there have been many, many boys in the classes and virtually no girls. When you dig into why this is so (and as I teach two of the classes I have dug) it’s clear the girls do not want to be seen to be doing something considered to be a boys activity. Even at a young age girls and boys have a very clear picture of what each sex is supposed to do and flying in the face of that sort of peer pressure is no easy thing.

So the European Union initiative is good. But it was clearly dreamt up by a team of marketing women who are trying to make the image of women in science look like the image of women in marketing – all glitz, high-heels and lipstick. Realistically that’s not the answer.

The answer to getting women to do science is not to glitz-up science so it looks like a fashion shoot; it is to persuade girls, and boys for that matter, that’s it’s OK to use their brains. That it’s better than OK to be excited by the idea of discovering how the world works. That it’s perfectly acceptable to run against the herd and not conform to society’s idea of the perfect girl. Basically don’t try to change the image of scientists, try to change the image of science.

One advertising campaign will not change the image of women in science any more than one campaign can change the image of men in science. An advertising campaign is a drop in the ocean compared to the tidal wave of imagery showing scientists as badly dressed men with wiry hair. And when you think about it, if those same films do show women scientists they already show them as high-heel-wearing beauties just waiting for the right man to incentivise them to take of their thick glasses and let down their hair.

My advice to the European Union: Put the same funky backing track to pictures that resemble reality. Of women scientists teaching, taking samples from volcanoes, diving with sharks and wearily pondering the mysteries seen through a microscope. Make what they actually do and who they are exciting. Attract people who want to be scientists and who have the brains to contribute. And then if it turns out they also wear high heels and lipstick – more power to them.

To be fair to the European Commission if you can get past the video and the overall marketing message the rest of their website has some good stuff in it. But it is a marketing campaign and it is hard to get past their core message.

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