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This may be the most patronising attempt to get girls involved in science ever

So, the European Commission has just started a campaign to get girls interested in careers in the sciences: Science: It’s a Girl Thing! I found out about this on Twitter on Friday morning after the campaign released a truly revolting teaser video that honestly kind of beggared belief. Someone, somewhere, approved this video and thought it was a good idea. A bunch of people were involved in shooting, editing, and distributing the video. And apparently at no point did anyone stop and ask themselves ‘wait, is this really such a good idea? Maybe we should consult some women scientists. Or like, just not do this.’

The video opens with a geeky guy sitting behind a microscope, when suddenly, bam! Catwalk music, and three babes walk in, strutting their stuff. There’s some shiny stuff and bright lights. Lots of vamping poses and meaningful sunglasses removal/replacement. Random flasks bubble while the girls giggle. Lipstick tubes. Everything comes over all pink. Science! It’s a Girl Thing!

’cause girls, you know, they’re into the pink. And scientific labs are absolutely environments where you wear heels and slinky clothes while giggling to yourself and wowing all those dudes behind microscopes. This video taught me so much about women in the sciences, and all the possibilities for girls interested in pursuing careers in science. I hope every girl gets to see it!


Naturally, scientists of all genders were pretty damn infuriated by the video, and no wonder. As PZ Myers put it, ‘This is a campaign that perpetuates myths about women’s preferences.’ It was incredibly patronising and gender essentialist, and didn’t speak at all to the real interests and experiences of girls interested in the sciences. As Myers and many other commentators noted, if you want to get girls fired up about science, you should try talking to them about science. 

Dr. Isis, on Twitter:

What pisses me off is that I spend a lot of time mentoring women. Thats what gets them in science. Not high gloss fashion. #sciencegirlthing

Heresiarch pointed out that not only was the video ridiculous, science (you know, that thing we’re supposed to be getting girls interested in) has actually disproved the effectiveness of exactly these kinds of awareness campaigns: ‘even if they see feminine STEM role models, girls who do not care for math or science might not be motivated to like these fields.’

The video was a horrific mismash of stereotypes and what was really foul is that the European Commission was framing it as some sort of stereotype-busting feat to show that science isn’t just about old white men in lab coats; it turns out that science is also about young, conventionally attractive women performing femininity to a high degree, even in wildly inappropriate environments! (I don’t know about you, but I totally leave my long, flowing locks loose around open flames.)

The idea behind the overall campaign is sound: women are underrepresented in STEM (particularly women of colour and disabled women, who don’t seem to be addressed at all in this promotion). Finding ways to address that is an ongoing issue, and one scientists actually talk about rather a lot. One thing they tend to agree on is that there are multiple barriers involved here that are making it challenging to make STEM careers available to women, ranging from lack of interest in science promoted by early gendering to gender gaps in terms of promotions, pay, and attention in the lab. And including typecasting of science as traditionally masculine, which doesn’t mean you need to swing the other way and make it into a hyperfeminine pursuit, or that you need to suggest that girls interested in the sciences might want to pursue them because they can do fun things like develop new lipstick shades. Science can actually look like a lot of different things; it does’t need to be gendered.

The teaser video? Not the way to go here.

This patronising, pathetic campaign in which science was swaddled in pink sparkles and packaged as something girls can totally do was ridiculous and self-defeating. The video focused entirely on fashion and cosmetics, and the organisation’s site was littered with pinkness and more cosmetics promotion, even though the actual profiles of real women scientists on the site focus on topics like veterinary virology and food security, all of which are fascinating and interesting and might attract interest from young women who would be totally turned off by the offensive framing, and thus are unlikely to see them.

Young women and girls do not in fact need everything to be wrapped in pink in order to be interested in it, nor do they need to see highly traditionalised performances of femininity to believe that something is ‘for them.’ In fact, for girls thinking about science, such displays could be a turnoff; maybe they aren’t interested in performing femininity, or they aren’t conventionally attractive, or, hey, they’re actually smart and independent enough to care about science regardless as to what scientists look like and what they wear in the damn lab, because they’re interested in the research, not the clothes.

Some responses from Twitter:

@teamawesomedjs: Has @anaturalstate seen it? Beware wrath of angered yank marine biologist! NB: NOT searching sea for new lipstick shade. #sciencegirlthing

@doctorcdf: I am going to buy my new niece a Meccano set when she’s old enough. I suspect this will be much more effective than #sciencegirlthing

@eruptionsblog: Considering my Ph.D. and postdoc advisors were both remarkable women scientists, this #sciencegirlthing is even more appalling and offensive

@teamawesomedjs: Maybe thats NEXT #sciencegirlthing approach?! Page 3 model in lab coat drops beaker of small pox but IT’S OK COZ TOM SAID I HAD NICE EYES!

@mjvinas: Plenty of awesome women in science, like this one @ my lab No need to use models for promo campaign! #sciencegirlthing

@nathan_oxley: Whoever did the #sciencegirlthing video should be force-fed a My Little Pony.

The European Commission claims it was trying to spark conversation. Well, it certainly managed to do that. By Saturday morning, the video was gone, and they were backpedaling wildly, recognising that they’d made a fatal PR mistake, and they got their social media team on the coverup in the hopes that their ‘fun’ teaser video hadn’t sunk their entire campaign.

Missteps like these, though, are more than just missteps. They reveal fundamental attitudes about women in science that don’t go away just by chasing down every copy of the video you can find and removing it. Because the fact remains that multiple people thought this video was a good and appropriate thing to distribute, and that fact doesn’t go away by privating the evidence.


  1. Susan wrote:

    GeekFeminism points out that a recent study found portraying women scientists as performing traditional femininity actually discouraged STEM-uninterested girls from the field, because they saw the message not as “you can be feminine and do science” but rather as “you must be both feminine *and* do science”.

    It sounds like a lot of work to me too.

    Monday, June 25, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  2. aliaras wrote:

    It’s weird, because they’re not entirely off-track. Being a female scientist *is*, in some areas, considered unfeminine, and that can be hard for kids. When I was younger, I was gender-policed by other women partly for my love of math and science. This lead to me striking the “cool girl” bargain, in which one gets to be friends with the boys in exchange for agreeing that all things femme/feminine are obviously strange and bad. This just lead to more gender policing (and left me with some internalized sexism for a long time).

    That said, the above problem was likey not caused by science not being pink and femmy enough but rather the gender-policing of my peers and the availability of the “cool girl” role. And that’s a problem that can’t be solved with a video.

    Monday, June 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  3. Check out this amazing video of girls showing off their amazing science in the White House:

    THIS is how you get girls into science.

    Monday, June 25, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Julia wrote:

    s.e., great discussion, and good point about not needing to hyper-feminize something to make it acceptable for girls.

    Monday, June 25, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  5. Hayley B wrote:

    Wow, everyone should watch the video Miriam so kindly linked to. I just cried through the whole thing. But out of happiness, not out of the kind of despair the European Commission’s video made me feel…

    Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Catherine wrote:

    RE Aliaras:

    THIS! this as loud and hard as I can make it!!

    I am a semi-pro Girl Scout working in outdoors/camp and I have encountered that with my girls and co-workers in very distressing ways as well as dealt with it growing up (I was supported by feminist parents Thank God who didn’t see science and art as binary, nor did my place on that spectrum have anything to do with my gender ID)

    Can I just be a person? Can I just be my normal un-tarted-up self interested in normal things? Do I have to be a ll pink and glittery because I am a Chick? Because I have news, I don’t get prettier (or whatever) when I am making music or making art or teaching kids about same, and I don’t become ugly (or whatever) when I am being a scientist or teaching science- and I have pics to prove it.

    And would I be femme or non-femme when I am teaching the science behind cooking? I do that, too.

    Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink