Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Science: It's Getting Closer to Being a Girl Thing.

I am experiencing a form of deja-vu: I am sitting in the same chair, drinking an inhuman amount of Earl Grey tea, and watching (and re-watching) recruitment videos designed to inspire today's young women to choose science as a career. There is one important difference: this time I am not completely disgusted and insulted by the mere existence of these videos.

Let's recap: the European Commission had produced and distributed a video that they, in a Cosmo-Girl-esque attitude towards women, thought would appeal to young women and encourage them to consider a science career. All the European Commission managed to inspire was outrage: the ad (and I think I am safe calling that pandering bit of runway nonsense an ad rather than a recruitment video) spent more time featuring girls sashaying than girls titrating. I don't know how many of the links are still operational for the original video, but if you can stomach it, check out the video here. There were several parody videos created by women in science that highlighted the stereotypes of women in the academics that the EC used as A-reel.

The European Commission had little choice but to pull the original video and come up with a strategy to create a new, less insulting version. Perhaps they were impressed by the parodies, because they created a video contest and a jury chose two winners and a People's Choice out of the submissions. Let's watch, shall we?

Here is Winner #1, a submission from France:

My first viewing of this video left me slightly uneasy, but I could not immediately identify the source of my discomfort. Then, after two more viewings, I could pinpoint the source of my unease. The creators of this video were not using the love of science and exploration as inspiration: they are relying on indignation at science being a male-dominated career to motivate young women to enter the sciences.

I can see what they were trying to get at: the adage "Decisions are made by those who show up" is as true in science as it is in other aspects of life. I hope this was the central message this video was trying to inspire in young women, but the leech-like message that followed was "Science has a male agenda that must be countered."

When I hear these sentiments from a few of my female peers, I do feel indignation, but not at "those evil sexist men." I feel like I'm being asked to choose sides in a boys vs. girls game in physical education class. Gender teams have never appealed to me, either in sports sports or in arguments. Just because I have XX chromosomes does not mean that I will automatically agree with a stance taken by another person with XX chromosomes. I am capable of looking at the data and making my own decisions.

My mentors have been and are mostly men. My colleagues in vertebrate ichnology are predominantly men. I couldn't ask for a better group of people with whom to work. I have never once felt like they looked down on me or my abilities, or (worse) thought that I needed extra help because I am a woman. Maybe my experience is not the same as that of other women in science: I can't speak of their experiences. However, when I hear people say that men are pushing their agenda in the sciences to the detriment of women, I think of the great men with whom I work and feel as though they are the ones being stereotyped. Stereotypes are dangerous tools on which to rely when making career decisions. Yes, there are inequalities that exist in science. They do need to be addressed. Decisions are made by those who show up, but WHY you show up is just as important as walking through the door. Indignation and anger at inequality are not going to be enough motivation to sustain you through a scientific career. The drive must run deeper than activism.

Here is Winner #2, a submission from Australia:

The opening amused me. Apparently, you don't have to be limited to a desk job if you are in science. I'm chuckling because for the past nine days I've been Super-Glued to my desk working on a paper. I would conservatively guess that over 70% of my duties as a curator and collections manager are administrative. Most researchers I know have to wear the Administrator Hat more often than not when applying for grants, working out budgets for their research labs, and serving on committees. Anyone who believes a scientific career frees them from the shackles of filling out forms in triplicate is going to be in for quite the rude awakening on Day 1 of their position.

I digress. This video is a bit more traditional in its approach: it shows young women having fun in a traditional chemistry lab setting. That left me with a "ho-hum" feeling. It was the last segment of the video that I found the most interesting. It showed images of real women scientists and their scientific fields. THAT is more like it! I believe the key to inspiration is to lead by example, showing a real female scientist getting down and dirty in science (with me that's a literal statement: part of my project involves stalking birds in marshlands, and during excavation I wield a pick-ax and shovel) highlights that anyone with a scientific passion can and should explore their interests as a career. I would have preferred the video focus more on examples of real women scientists than the smoking beakers.

Here is the People's Choice runner-up, a submission from the States:

I like this video. It showed real young women talking about scientific achievements they want to be a part of. They were determined to send the message that they did not consider gender to be a barrier to them entering, and succeeding in, the sciences. The focus was on their drive and their goals.

The European Commission had no where to go but up in terms of producing a better recruitment video, and I think they learned that women in the scientific community have strong ideas about what they want to see for promotion.

I found myself asking "What would my ideal recruitment video look like?", especially since I was unsettled by the first video. My ideal video would be a combination of videos #2 and the People's Choice. I envision young women talking about their specific scientific goals and dreams, and pairing them with women scientists who are working in those specific fields. A link between the now and the future, and an emphasis on how today's women scientists are the leaders and the mentors for the future women researchers. Decisions are made by those who show up: we should be there to give meaningful directions.

Back to editing figure captions.

SAS out.


  1. Well said, Lisa! I have to say that while I found the first, French, video incredibly offensive I've been beaten with this particular club so often that I may be overly sensitive to anti-male rhetoric like this. As far back as elementary school I was told, by teachers, that girls are smarter than boys and was denied opportunities to participate in special science groups, like future problem-solvers, which were the sole province of hand-picked female students. Things got no better in university, where the vast majority of science scholarships were reserved to encourage women to study science. Sadly such awards were not based on merit, which resulted in most them being handed out to women who were interested only in the money, not the science, and most of whom went on to 'more interesting things.'

    The message of this video, that you so correctly sussed as standing up to men's agenda of dominance is one that I've run up against so often that has become a worn-out cliche. A biology undergraduate, who certainly should have known better, once told me that if men had breasts there would be a cure for breast cancer.

    Video number two offended me for an entirely different reason: its stereo-typical Hollywood protrayal of scientists. All of them wearing crisp, white lab coats, looking at beakers of colourful chemicals. There was even a bloody Van de Graaf Generator! All that was missing was a crackling Jacob's Ladder and a wild-eyed maniac crying, "It's alive!"

    The way to attract women to science is not through recruitment videos produced by people whose only understanding of it comes from Hollywood B-movies. A better solution would be to provide internships as part of high-school science curricula. If you let kids see what real scientists do, and allow them to participate in field work and experiments, they will be better positioned to make an educated decision about whether to pursue a career in science.

    Sorry for the lengthy rant; struck a raw nerve here.

    Science: it's a people thing.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. It's very disappointing that you've encountered the other end of the stereotype - discouraging boys and men away from science. Two wrongs definitely do not make a right. I make it a point not to apply for grants that are only open to women. If an idea is worthy of funding, it shouldn't matter if I have more estrogen in my system. I do not want a gender-based win any more than I would want a gender-based lose.

    The other aspect that severely irked me about Video #1 was the perpetuation of the idea that women need special extra help to succeed in sciences. It perpetuates the myth that XX is a disability. It's neither a disability nor an advantage - it's just a state of chromosomes. Science is a people thing.

    Video #2 was definitely a cartoonish version of Hollywood Science. That I find annoying. I don't think I've ever had a smoking beaker on my lab bench...steam from the cup of tea doesn't count. The only redeeming quality was the inclusion of real scientific entities, however small the focus was. I would consider no one video a definite win.

    Mentoring and internships are the key. Abstract videos may catch the interest of a few, but opportunities for direct involvement need to be encouraged. That way there is no perpetuation of idealized science, but real, hands-on science.