Why “Pinkifying” Science Does More Harm Than Good
It’s a tough fight, trying to keep girls and women interested in and doing science. So it’s extremely sad when a well meaning campaign makes the entire scientific community sick to its collective stomach. I present to you: “Science, it’s a Girl Thing!” And here is the teaser video, in all its glory…
Elyse sums it up quite nicely if you can’t stand to watch the whole thing:
SCIENCE: Where preteen girls can celebrate sexualization by much older men!
SCIENCE: It’s how to meet a sugar daddy!
SCIENCE: Because someone out there has a nerd glasses fetish.
(UPDATE 16:00 CDT: The video above is now listed as private. I’ll leave it embedded for now in case it returns. I can only hope this is a good sign and that the complaints have been heard.)
(UPDATE 6/23 10:15 CDT: I’ve mirrored the video for instructional purposes. This is a failed attempt at marketing a really good idea, and should remain up so that a) this post makes sense and b) we can all learn from it what not to do.)
I don’t say “teaser” lightly, you see. In fact, if the women in this video actually did a strip tease out of their lab coats for their male colleague, it would have fit right in. Apparently, women stomp into the lab with impractically high heels, short skirts, trendy hair, and give sexy looks to the hot guy in the lab. Oh, and they are spilling makeup and lipstick everywhere. I’m pretty sure my chemistry professor would have immediately kicked out anyone contaminating their lab space with so much powder, and I’d be pretty pissed at anyone who dares come near my telescope with a tube of lipstick.
So there’s lots of make-up, sexiness, pop music, typical “girl” things that are so cliche that I can’t even begin to get into it… and… where’s the science? Oh right, there are pretty liquids bubbling and making smoke. Yes, I get it. I use dry ice to entertain a crowd, too, but then I actually teach them some science. But apparently bubbly things MEAN science! Hydrogen! Giggles! Writing equations on a uselessly clear board! Strike a pose! Yeah, that’s exactly what we do in the lab all day. It’s amazing that any male scientist can ever get any work done with us strutting around like that!
Clearly, they got the image wrong, wrong, wrong. It is, as Sharon Hill, a real-life geologist, puts it, “as if Disney channel male execs do “science Barbie”.” I am not of the Disney Channel generation, so maybe I’m missing something in thinking that this kind of campaign is absolutely revolting.
Or, maybe not.
BugGirl and Rebbecca passed along these two studies that indicate that a campaign like this only serves to demotivate girls. Unfortunately, the articles themselves are behind a paywall, but I’ll try and summarize the conclusions as best I can.
In a 2002 study of “stereotype threat” and its effects on women’s achievement in quantitative studies, the researchers found that female undergraduates with an ability in math performed worse than their male colleagues, but only when subjected to gender-stereotype television commercials beforehand. The control group showed no difference in math scores. Furthermore, in studies where these commercials were used to prime students before having to choose between a math and a verbal test, women exposed to the gender stereotypes were more likely to choose the verbal test, avoiding the math. When exposed to traditional “girly” stereotypes, these women were more likely to shun quantitative analysis, not run towards it with open arms. The same was shown when women were asked about their vocational aspirations.
It begins to look like this “teaser” is designed to do the complete opposite of what the creators intended.
A more recent study looks more directly at the feminine-STEM advertising that this video embodies. (STEM = science, technology, engineering, and math.) Created as a response to overwhelming stereotypes that science is unfeminine and that women scientists are not “woman enough,” this kind of advertising hopes to entice girls back into science. However, this experiment shows the reverse effect. Girls who did not show an interest in STEM fields were less likely to report wanting to go on to study STEM fields in college after reading about a very feminine college science student, versus a gender neutral one. Even the girls who did have an interest in STEM beforehand were more likely to underrate their own ability after this. Yet, a feminine role model with an unspecified major had no such effect, only the feminine scientist. Further study revealed a plausible hypothesis: girls felt it was unlikely they could live up to both the science aptitude AND femininity of these new, girly science role models.
(UPDATE 12:40 CDT: Science writer extraordinaire Jennifer Ouellette pointed out this New Scientist article that gives a great description of the study above.)
(UPDATE 14:25 CDT: Several astronomers have pointed out this critique of the study in question. Although I agree with the author’s conclusions that the study is small and the results preliminary and address that in the next sentence. But that’s how science often works, incrementally.)
Of course, there are just two studies in a whole field, and a broader reading of the literature is necessary to get the whole picture. However, such studies should give one pause before trying to “pinkify” science, no matter how well-meaning you are.
To be fair, the rest of the videos on the website are very encouraging. Here is just one example of a real woman scientist that is featured:
This is excellent. THIS I identify with, yes partly because she is also an astronomer. Her childhood story is one that many 10-year-olds would identify with and it even shows her wearing pink and doing something artistic and creative! Wow! And then that lipstick writing shows up at the end and I just cringe.
Girls need positive female role models in STEM, and this website is trying to make that happen. That is great. My advice to the European Commission on Research and Innovation is this… ditch the lipstick logo. Get rid of that awful video. Seriously, that is doing more harm than good, and everyone thinks you are silly. But I get it. You are trying to achieve a worthy goal. Just ditch the teaser, and make a new one. How about, say, a composite of those excellent women scientists featured in your other videos? Go ahead. Take my ideas. They are free.
For the love of science, please, just stop with the lipstick.
P.S. Thanks, Will, for the pdfs!
P.P.S Added 14:25 CDT… I’m not in any way dissing scientists who are feminine! I’ve worn heels at conferences and I even wear sundresses to work. I’m a bellydancer for crying out loud. Do you have any idea how much glitter, makeup, and strutting is involved in that?! The point here is the uber-feminization, or someone’s idea of it, in advertising such as this. Scientists are a diverse bunch, and that should be emphasized.
P.P.P.S. Added 6/23 10:15 CDT: Many thanks to MSNBC’s Alan Boyle for keeping up with the European Commission’s responses! (See his updates at the end.)