Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where Is The Science In This Science-Recruiting Video?

I was hoping that the Gods of Vacuity would hold out for at least a few months before forcing me to address issues surrounding women and girls in the sciences, but gosh darn you, European Commission! You had to go and create this recruitment video that you claim is designed to encourage young women to pursue careers in science. It has been circulating on the Web for some time now, but it is so annoying that I just have to comment. Note: they have since removed the official link after the barrage of negative comments, but thanks to the internet the video survives! Go on, watch it. I'll be waiting right here.

Done? How are you feeling? Do you feel irate, frustrated, and sadly amused? Did you respond, as my husband did, with "How inappropriate"? Do you need a cup of tea to soothe your nerves? I most certainly did. One pot of Earl Grey later, I feel a little more composed and ready to compose.

When I first saw this video, I had vain (no pun intended) hopes that EU was a new cosmetic-fashion company that wanted to encourage people to do cosmetic-related research. My mind could not conceive that this bit of runway fluff was an official government-sanctioned production. Yes, their reasoning is sound, and their intentions are admirable, but the resulting product reeks of damaging stereotypes and tiresome cliches.

First, there is very little reference to science, let alone women in science, in the video. Oh sure, we are shown dry ice smoking in tastefully arranged beakers, and we do see one young woman writing out an equation in shiny silver white-board marker (Look! Math!). There is one shot of iron filings (Look! Physics!) and an electronic circuit (Look! Engineering!). We see Dr. Accomplished-And-Dreamy looking through his microscope at the opening of the clip, but he is most definitely not female (Look! Biology?), and he makes a longer appearance than the symbol for hydrogen (Look! Chemistry!). The rest of the production is spent on strutting, fashionably-coiffed young women, posing for what is more likely a magazine spread than photos for a faculty website. These images are interspersed with several shots of makeup. There is not one image in this video of a woman doing real (or even "real-for-TV") science, and not one image that would inspire an intelligent girl to think "I want to do that!" There is no shortage of women out there who do exciting research. In paleontology I can think of several without needing to reach for a second pot of tea. Here's a tip, EU: if you want to inspire a young person to try a challenging career path, show them a real person to act as a role-model. I would bet that filming real women doing real science would be a lot less expensive than the released Vogue-esque "Girl Thing" video.

Second, it was very obvious that the consultants for this video did not think to appeal to young women's sense of ambition, drive, motivation, or sense of adventure. Nope, young women were shown pretty makeup and clothes. Even the official website for the "Science, It's a Girl Thing" website features makeup in the title. Head's up for all you women scientists out there: lipstick is now the official symbol of women in science. The marketing consultants are sending a damaging message to young women. Message #1: Don't bother with all that thinking and hard work, just strut your finely-dressed self into that lab and everything will fall into place. Message #2: Outward appearances are extremely important in science. Heck, Dr. Accomplished-and-Dreamy seemed very impressed with the young women in the video, but I'll bet it was not because he was intrigued by their latest hypotheses.

There are mixed opinions on women's physical appearance and femininity in academia. Is it damaging to play up one's femininity in the professional academic realm? Should we just say to heck with it and just grab whatever happens to be on top of the clean clothes pile that remotely matches? I'd love to hear some of your opinions on this topic in the comments section.

My take on the issue is quite simple. For better or worse, appearances do matter to a certain degree. We are primates with complex visual processors, and the first aspect we notice about someone is the physical aspect (hopefully it is not the olfactory aspect). How a person presents themselves to the professional world says a great deal about how comfortable and confident they themselves feel in that world. How this is expressed is a matter of personal style and preference: there is no official uniform for scientists. Lab coats are common, but that is an issue of safety, comfort, and random squirts of shark-flavored preservative fluid rather than style. How "feminine" I look depends on what I happen to be doing that day. There is no way I'm going to wear my pinstripe skirt and jacket while I reorganize fossil cabinets or pour a silicone mould, just as I would not wear my preparation clothes to introduce a guest speaker. Barring a few fashion faux pas, my wardrobe choices reflect my level of self respect. I don't need to toss around my secondary sexual characteristics to get attention, and that's not the attention I want in the first place. No matter how mini my skirt is or how high my heels are, my papers will not get published if they are crap.  So yes, for me clothing and appearance are important to a point, but as long as it is clean, comfortable, matching, occasion appropriate, and fits without substituting for a full-body scan, that's as far as I consider the issue of my appearance as a woman scientist. The "Girl Thing" video only serves to strengthen the misconception of women scientists are not feminine by trying too hard to prove that science-minded women can be feminine.

Sadly I recently encountered the issue of girls, appearance, and science while judging at a public school science fair. The judges were divided into the elementary school and the secondary school judges. I chose secondary school because I had done a few elementary judgings prior and wanted a different experience. I have never been more disappointed in a gender as I was that day. The boys' experiments were actual science or statistical experiments with hypotheses, tests, and conclusions. Out of the seven experiments done by girls, four of them focused on fashion. The questions they asked for their "experiments" were "Do boys prefer looking at girls wearing makeup or not wearing makeup?" and "Do boys like girls that dress preppy, goth, or skater?" and "What kinds of makeup attract the most attention?" Interestingly, these are questions that have much deeper implications within the social, behavioral, and evolutionary sciences, and had these girls explored any of the deeper implications, I would have strongly recommended their fashion projects for the win. However, their conclusions followed the theme of "Based on our results, girls should wear this to get boys to notice them." This is likely a continuation of the problem Lisa Bloom addressed in her Huffingtong Post article "How to talk to little girls", where girls hear more appearance-related than accomplishment- related comments early in their development. Are the EU "Girl Thing" consultants right? Are girls conditioned to value looking good over actually doing something?

I would argue that, no, many girls who are already driven to pursue the sciences are not, or are striving to overcome that issue. Whether they take the time to present themselves nicely is a different matter, but I guarantee that these young women do not worry that their scientific accomplishments will damage their femininity. They already know what it takes to be a scientist. I would be interested in seeing their reaction to the "Girl Thing" video.

What about those girls who are driven by external opinions? It could be argued that the "Girl Thing" video is targeting girls that have never considered their future beyond whether mid-thigh is the new knee-length, and that it pushes them to consider doing something while looking good. I would argue that the "Girl Thing" video portrays science as a hobby that you fit into your schedule between trips to the boutique and facials.

Lastly, what I found most disappointing about the video was that it gave absolutely no sense of what I find appealing about science - the excitement of discovery, the thrill of exploration, and the triumph of solving a previously insurmountable problem. There is no dress or lipstick color in the world that can substitute that feeling. The potential impact and contribution that just one person can make in science, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you look like, is the message that needs to be used for recruitment. Looks fade, clothing rots, and physical attention wanes. Achievement and advancement outlast all material things, including our physical selves.


  1. Message #1: Don't bother with all that thinking and hard work, just strut your finely-dressed self into that lab and everything will fall into place.

    Well, that's how it works for me! I was strutted my fine self right through manuscript revisions just this morning :)

    Dr. Accomplished-and-Dreamy

    1. Dr. Accomplished-and-Dreamy,

      How did you manage to concentrate on your revisions with all those models prancing about? ;)

  2. When you're as good-looking as I am you don't need prancing models; it's mirrors that are the real distraction! :)