In Defense of Pink Science

Over at Quartz, Shannon Palus wrote a great piece about how condescending so many campaigns to get women into STEM are, whereby companies market to women using female stereotypes under the assumption that it is the only way any woman would be interested in STEM fields. Palus argues that the real reason there are a dearth of women in STEM is due to a culture of sexism and racism that creates a toxic atmosphere for anyone who is not a white cis-man, and not because STEM is not feminine enough, as marketers seem to think.

I agree with almost all of Palus’ points. I do believe that STEM fields often have an academic culture full of sexism and racism and that that is the main reason why so many of those fields are mainly full of white men, who inevitably have many less roadblocks along their career path. I also agree with Palus that this problem is not going to be fixed by IBM marketing to women using hairdryers or ads for convincing girls to go into science using pink and cosmetics. As Palus writes, “The issue isn’t that women and other underrepresented minorities are uninterested in science. It’s that science pushes them away.”

Saying that though, I do feel the need to push back against this idea that there is something wrong with pink or hearts or cosmetics or that those displays of femininity are somehow at odds with serious science. I’ve written before about how my personal interest in electrical engineering was destroyed at a young age due to bullying from boys in my STEM classes. This speaks to Palus’ claim that the atmosphere in STEM fields is toxic for women, but I would go further to say that the thing that drew me away was that I wanted to be feminine and girly but felt that it would be at odds with engineering. If I wanted to be an engineer, I thought I would have to give up dresses and make-up and start being more boyish. In the end I chose femininity over science.

Although I agree that we should push back against campaigns that attempt to convince women to pursue science by using sexist stereotypes, we need to be careful that in doing so we aren’t inadvertently condescending to women ourselves by proclaiming that stereotypically girly things are stupid or silly or vapid. Although “all women love pink” is a sexist stereotype that we should fight against, we have to be careful not to erase the fact that some women do love the color pink or love wearing lipstick and flowers and other stereotypically feminine things and many of those women also happen to be scientists. The  European Comission’s #ScienceGirlThing campaign is condescending because it assumes that the only way women will be interested in science is if they pink it up, but much of the pushback has been to assume that worrying about lipstick and looks is something that only a vapid person would care about and scientists are smart so obviously they aren’t thinking about lipstick. In the end, this type of dismissal of femininity could do as much harm towards encouraging women to pursue STEM as the original commercial does.

This gets to an even bigger societal problem in that cultural products that have an audience of mostly women are dismissed as trite while things that are loved by mostly men are considered serious. It’s pretty well accepted that it is ok to make fun of the mostly female audiences of pop singers like Taylor Swift, implying that her music is shallow and that the young women who love her are just stupid teenagers that are swallowing anything the media gives them. Take the same songs but put them in the hands of indie rock darling Ryan Adams though, and now you have a serious and deep album worthy of a Pitchfork review.

I wrote recently about gendered kitchen design and gender defaults:

Almost everything is made for men’s bodies. Until only a couple years ago, safety testing for cars was done only with crash test dummies that were designed to mimic male bodies, leading to higher fatalities and serious injuries for women who are in car crashes. That is right. If you are a woman in a car, you are more likely to die in a crash because cars were designed to protect men. Offices and other public spaces have temperatures meant to be most comfortable for men, leaving women shivering. Drug dosage is typically calibrated on men, so women may not be taking the correct dosages of drugs, which could cause side effects or even accidental overdosing. Even cell phones seem to be made to be too big to fit many women’s smaller hands. Men’s bodies are considered the default body, probably because most of the people doing the designing are men, and us women live in a world where we make-do with things not designed to fit our bodies.

The same goes for cultural products. Things that are stereotypically feminine or loved by women are dismissed as too girly (i.e. bad) but things loved by men default to being cool or important or serious. As a culture we have lately decided that gendered toys are bad and should be de-gendered. The first step is getting rid of boy and girl toy sections but the next is to stop making pink versions of the boy toys. Companies like GoldieBlox are applauded for making STEM-focused toys aimed at girls but then vilified for making those toys pink. Apparently the way to de-gender toys is to stop making pink toys. Unfortunately this rides on the sexist assumption that “pink is for girls” and the secondary sexist assumption that “girly things are bad.” So, the way to get rid of sexism in toys is to stop making pink toys and force the kids who used to play with those toys to play with toys traditionally made for boys. In other words, it is trying to eliminate sexism while simultaneously leaning on sexist assumptions.

You can see this on display in this often hilarious Pinterest page Needlessly Gendered Products where they feature gendered bookmarks, gendered juice and even gendered bread. However, much of the page just consists of things that are pink. For example, Mace that comes in various colors that include black and pink, pink gardening gloves, or extension outlets that come in colors such as black, blue and (shock!) pink. In other words, whenever something being sold is pink it is labeled as sexist, even though labeling something sexist just because it is pink itself relies on sexist stereotypes.

Can we stop it with the vilifying pink already? Or for that matter, stop vilifying anything that is stereotypically feminine? When that vilification is connected with science, it is especially problematic because it tells children of any gender that happen to be feminine or like feminine things that femininity is anathema to science. It’s definitely a problem when the only science marketing towards women relies on sexist stereotypes, but the answer isn’t to throw out all the pink.

Both adults and children should be able to be in STEM fields or play with STEM-orientated toys while simultaneously expressing their gender in any way they desire. In some cases that includes pink, flowery, sparkly STEM toys for children or scientists who sometimes love to wear makeup and dresses. Engineering and building toys have for so long only been marketed to boys, leaving the girlier girls or even the “girlier” boys or those who don’t fit well in the cultural gender binary but happen to love pink toys left without. It’s great that there are now more options like GoldieBlox, but in offering those toys we have to be careful not to pigeonhole girls into feeling like they are only able to play with the pink toys and it needs to be made clear that all toys are for everyone. Simultaneously for adults, it needs to be ok for people of any gender in STEM fields to be allowed to do traditionally feminine things like wear make-up or dresses or flowers in their hair without being looked down upon in their field, while still leaving room for those who would rather dress in jeans and a nerdy t-shirt.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the feminine or with pink for that matter and we need to stop treating those things as lesser than. The answer is not to throw out everything pink but to allow pinkness in and recognize that it’s just as good a color as all the other colors. It’s ok to like pink and to like science.

Featured photo by Jamie Bernstein of a hair clip made by Surly Amy. You can buy your own science-themed flower hair clip in the Surly Amy Etsy Shop

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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