When I was little, I had two ambitions. One: to be a book illustrator, two: to be a lab technician. The latter was because all the clips on Blue Peter and in the news of people wearing white coats and using pipettes looked so clean and futuristic, they were finding things out which made a big difference.
Watching ‘Science: It’s A Girl Thing’, the video produced by the European Commission to encourage schoolgirls to take up further study in science, engineering and technology, took me back to the bad old days of teenage science. The ones where you realise that science wasn’t about changing the world, but feeling uncomfy in a padded bra and making dogs out of chemistry models out of boredom. Science labs weren’t clean and futuristic, they were made from dusty textbooks. I can definitely understand why school-taught science might not fascinate teenagers.
But at 15, I wasn’t replacing science with pink or lipstick or naff perfume adverts. And even my contemporaries who were wouldn’t have been convinced by the EC’s video efforts.
If you’ve not seen the video, it depicts three dolled-up women in their 20s, strutting around overspilling experiments, neon-lit parts of the periodic table and exploding powder puffs of pink dust. The opening scene shows a bemused and bespectacled, attractive man take a glance up from his microscope to be stunned by these ladies.
All of this scientific activity is taking place not in a lab, but in a kind of shit nightclub, where everything is pink, but there is no dancing. It is neatly rounded off with the words, “Science: It’s a girl thing” scrawled across our screens by the lipstick which is flashed in front of us, like a subliminal message, during the beginning of the video.
It’s difficult to know where to start listing the problems with this: the giant pink whale of sexism, the lack of age-appropriate people, the fact that ‘science’ is apparently very basic chemistry, the impracticality of them only wearing lab goggles right at the end of the video when they’re just standing around, the fact that it doesn’t actually give girls reasons to get into science at all, or that it acknowledges the existence of a ‘girl thing’.*
The video is is part of a larger campaign from the EC. So I donned my cocktail dress, stilettos and lab glasses and joined my chemistry-model dog in having a closer look. The website looks a bit cheap; the header “Science: It’s a girl thing!” is laughably incongruous with the stiff blue and white EU officiality. The ‘dream jobs’ section offers an option to ‘come back soon’ and the six reasons why science needs you looks and reads like a textbook. There’s a stock image of a female doctor with an elderly patient.
There is, however, a good video series of female scientists, engineers and students from across Europe, telling their stories and talking about why their jobs are so great. Nearly every video starts with what inspired them to pursue their career. Things like the family computer, sci-fi, the presence of microbes and the desire to invent all cropped up. No lipstick there, then. Science, we are told convincingly is a “universal language” which is “interesting every day”. This is genuinely pretty inspiring stuff.
Why, then, such a huge disparity between the real lady scientists, and the fake lady scientists in the promo? The EC’s aims were to inspire “girls and women who probably would not have considered a career in science”and they spent €900k Euros on a study to work out who, and why not. They came up with a fluffier version of a Boots ad.
I tried to work out if the final product was caused by their studies. The report being 73 pages long, and lab glasses rather uncomfortable, I instead did a blanket search for “lipstick” “pink” “dresses” and “girl thing”. All the results came back negative.
Simple logic will show that, despite this, the EC still think that girls who don’t want to do science can only identify with pink, lipstick and the notion of a ‘girl thing’.*
I really hope, therefore, that this advert is the mindless thinking of some out-of-touch, sexist Don Draper type in his 30s. That there weren’t any copywriters about to laugh this joke of a video out of the water, much like the pink dust on its featured powderpuff. Well done, EC, you’ve invested a load of cash and created a video to be filed alongside ‘Math is Hard’ Barbie, and the ‘Science Bit’ of L’Oreal adverts in the ‘Lame Attempts To Fem-Up Science’ drawer.
Did they not think of Marie Curie, maybe? Or the Nobel prize-winning Dorothy Hodgkin, Joceyln Bell Burnell, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Barbara McClintock and the other female scientists who join their ranks? Or how teenage girls might be interested to know that we hear about Watson and Crick, but not Rosalind Franklin, even though she was involved in the discovery of DNA too?
Maybe not. Maybe they thought girls were too busy putting on lipstick to give a shit. Or maybe, it’s backwards thinking like this is responsible for the gender imbalance in scientific study that they’re trying to combat.
*(which, by the way, in my mind is a vagina, or menstrual blood or oestrogen. Everything else is arguably a ‘people thing’).
This post appears on HuffPost UK. Reproduced with permission.