Science: It’s a girl thing!
Submitted by Kate Sleeth on Mon, 2012-12-24 23:12
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I had no idea that the European Commission had made a video to attract more women to careers in science before I witnessed the reactions of friends and fellow scientists in different social media. Within a few posts, I realized that either something must have gone wrong as scientists, both male and female, were not happy about how they are portrayed in the video.  If you haven’t seen it, follow this link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g032MPrSjFA&NR=1&feature=endscreen.  This is not the original YouTube posting, however, as the European Commission has removed it due to such bad press. Within seconds of watching, I could see why others were offended and had a strongly negative reaction to it.

The vast majority of the advert consists of either cosmetics exploding, women posing with glasses wearing very short outfits and sky high heels, the occasional flash of a piece of scientific equipment, scientific modals and written equations, and my personal favorite, the dashing male scientist (who is the only individual wearing a lab coat in the entire thing) apparently looking at the young females in a very lecherous manner. How many stereotypes can you include in 53 seconds? 

My first irritation was that it appears that the only studious person in the advert is the male, and that the females are too busy posing and giggling to be intelligent. Clearly, this is not the message they were aiming for, but it was the primary one I received.  Also, I believe in people feeling empowered to achieve whatever they want. Where was this very important message, or did I miss it?  When I showed it to a few high school students, they thought it was a cosmetics advert and were very surprised at the end when they realized it wasn’t. I hope that females who watch this know that, should they become a female scientist, there are many research areas to pursue and not just the cosmetic industry (another unintentional byproduct of the campaign I assume).

I realize that my friends and I who are scientists are not the target audience for this campaign. However I would be very surprised if this actually attracts any more women to follow a scientific career.  If this was a consumer item, you would be able to sue for wrongful representation.  While there are many female scientists who can look as sexy, bubbly and giggly as the girls in this campaign, they probably don’t do it at work.  Primarily, I would hope this is because revealing outfits and high heels are not suitable personal protective equipment, but also because these are simply not practical for someone performing experiments.  Who wants to walk up and down a lab all day in 3 inch heels? Maybe I am just too practical, but give me jeans, sneakers, a lab coat and some safety goggles and I am set for anything the lab has to throw at me.

I don’t know a single scientist who began their career thinking that science was about looking cool. Everyone I know has a serious passion for their chosen field, whether that is astrophysics, genetics, neuroscience or chemistry. Where was that in the advert? It would have been so much more powerful to demonstrate the love that drives scientific research --  the dedication to curing disease or understanding the natural world, the creativity and ingenuity used every day to test hypotheses, the joy of spending your day with like minded people who challenge you to continually strive for scientific excellence, or the flexible working environment and the ability to have a truly international career.

The aim of the campaign is a truly admirable one: to encourage more females to follow a scientific path. However, this part of it can probably be counted as a failure. If you go to the actual website (http://science-girl-thing.eu), it is more of a success. 

There are video profiles from female scientists across Europe from different scientific fields.  The profiles offer a sharp contrast to the advert as these are real female scientists explaining their jobs and giving advice on how to proceed with a scientific career.  They are shown in their laboratories performing tasks which are far more engaging for me then the superfluous insipid fluff in the advert.  For fun, I performed the test to see what kind of researcher I would be (I am a biochemist and molecular biologist who specializes in DNA repair mechanisms and cancer), and it suggested that either a biomedical engineer, an immunologist or a neuroscientists would suit me.  Admittedly, the three questions getting to this are extremely limited, but I would say these options would probably expand the horizons of a younger individual and could lead to further research to learn more about each option.

While I dislike the video, and its portrayal of scientists in general, I will have to wait and see if the number of students entering university to study science increases before I write off this campaign.  Maybe this video is only insulting if you are currently a scientist and you feel it demeans your achievements and hard work?  The website which accompanies it does contain some valuable information and insights.  Hopefully, the European Commission will expand on this tool and revisit their advertising campaign once they have spoken to some actual scientists!!  

I am interested in knowing your views on the advert, the website or both.  Are they derogatory to scientists?  Am I just the wrong audience for this campaign and should lighten up?  I feel that the outreach I perform on a regular basis, to elementary and high school students, is effective and I am giving a fair representation of what being a scientist is like.  Should I show them these instead?



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