How Do We Interest Girls in Science? Not Like This
Emily Willingham, managing editor, DoubleXScience
A man with a chiseled face dons his horn rims for a better look as three barely adult women in micromini dresses and stilettos catwalk toward him. As he stares in shock, lust, and awe, each woman strikes a pose as a bass beat throbs in the background.
Screen capture from the video "Science: It's a Girl Thing
The beginning of yet another low-rent porn movie from the ‘80s? No. It’s a video that the European Union’s Research and Innovation section made to--wait for it--attract girls to science. And it doesn’t get any better from that opening scene, as it continues with a Freudian, candy-colored nightmare mishmash of lipstick, makeup brushes, beakers, and nail polish. It ends with each of the three barely adult women removing their sunglasses in exchange for safety glasses. As I tweeted after first watching the video, it’s off message, off-putting, and just plain offal.
The social media world of science and science writers awoke to this video Friday morning, and instantly, Twitter was all aflutter. It offended many. Others found themselves bemused and confused. The website associated with this effort, Science: It’s a Girl Thing!, is better in both content and presentation than the video and even uses the word “keen” on its home page. Unfortunately, whoever is responsible for this whole debacle failed on that end of things, as well. While the page features a handful of profiles of women in science and “six reasons science needs you,” it has nothing to offer under the “Dream Jobs” tab. All it says is, “There are so many interesting jobs in science for you to discover. Come back soon to find out more.” As though girls and women haven’t been put off long enough. It would have taken about 60 seconds to create a simple list of great jobs in science, seconds that would have been far better spent than the many hours that likely went into making this worthless video.
And then there’s the Events link. There, we are promised a “Girl Thing” mobile that will travel across Europe to “offer fun, on-the-spot scientific activities demonstrating the connection between science and music, cosmetics, food, fashion, and more.” This phrase joins the video to form the horns of the dilemma that anyone doing science outreach to girls must take on. How do you target girls and interest them in science without coming off like a sexist jerk who thinks that girls are like My Little Ponies who will turn to science only if offered the carrot of fashion, makeup, and pink things?
Science seems particularly prone to the misconception that the only way to attract girls is to dress up science in heels and nail polish and trot it out in glowing fuchsia. There is nothing wrong with being feminine and being a scientist or wanting to be a scientist. At Double X Science, we feature women who talk about how their femininity and their scientific activities interact. The clothes in the video are fantastic, and the shoes are killer. But the assumption that girls will become interested in science or seek out the Girl Thing Website only if you present them with the nonsensical fluff that is this “teaser,” presumably because it matches what’s inside their heads? That’s offensive.
Girls are smart. They’re savvy. They’re not fools. An explosion of blue eyeshadow and a Bunsen burner that turns into lipstick are the ideas of a flatfooted adult whose outlook is far distant from the girls of today. But even the girls of the yesterday from whence this video seems to have time traveled would have eyed this askance. I know because I was one. As a future woman of science, I was obsessed with clothes and still pause before a display of great footwear. But I also knew what was cool and what was hokey nonsense some adult cooked up in a misguided attempt to lure me toward their product. Any girl watching this would recognize it for what it is: Cotton candy designed to sweeten what they would undoubtedly infer is an adult effort to force boring information on them. The generation that reveres kickass Katniss from the Hunger Games isn’t going to buy into this puffery.
You know what girls into science like? We like what anyone into science likes. We like a good mystery--there’s a reason Nancy Drew has been popular for decades. We like the weird and the fascinating. We’re drawn to the outside world we can see and the hidden world we can’t. Like any intellectually curious human being (because science is actually a human thing), our interests are in using our mental powers to take on a good mystery and try to solve it, the essence of practicing science. If we’re wearing heels and a great outfit while we’re doing that, fine. The only remotely compelling image from that entire video involves a girl writing faux “equations” and looking like she’s actually engaging in some kind of science. And that’s a key observation.
The European Union group that made this video would have done well to look around them at their target audience today. Their sad effort to meld a live-action version of Seventeen magazine with late-night Cinemax visuals is a hot mess of a failure. You want to attract girls to your site so they can see the promise that being a scientist might hold for them? Do what anyone in marketing has known for years works. The Girl Scouts figured this one out years ago. Show them girls who already are doing that. Cool girls doing cool, empowered things that could change the world. Like Katniss, except, you know, with safety glasses.