Gender Equality

Science: it’s a girl thing! A viral fiasco

This piece originally appeared at The Guardian on June 29, 2012.

Advertising professors everywhere must be thanking the European Commission for their new campaign, Science: it’s a girl thing! This campaign – designed to convince high school girls to pursue careers in science – had such a badly bungled launch that it’s sure to become the topic of lectures and exam questions for communications students throughout Europe and beyond.

The problem lies in the “teaser” video, which went viral last week for all the wrong reasons. It was put up on the campaign website, disliked, criticised, mocked and then pulled down faster than the gaga male scientist in the video could open his zipper.

The video was so shocking that the EC had to deny that it was an attempt at irony.

I was a member of the “gender expert group” that provided recommendations to the commission for this campaign. We met during the spring of 2011, articulated ideas about target groups and relevant evidence-based perspectives. We submitted a report and then heard nothing more from the commission until receiving an invitation to the kick-off a few weeks ago.

When that invitation came, it worried me. The logo for the campaign was written in lipstick – pink lipstick. “What will that convey?” I wondered.

Will it suggest that girls wanting to do science not only have to be smart but also feminine? Will it imply that there’s sexy girl science on the one hand and real guy science on the other?

My uncertainty about how the campaign would be received was vanquished the moment I saw the teaser video. Not only was it completely devoid of any trace of our group’s recommendations – as we noted in a recently released joint statement – but its sex roles were stereotypical clichés.

There was the aforementioned man in a lab coat sitting at a microscope. But the women wore short skirts and stilettos as they pouted and giggled while clumsily dropping models of molecules all over the lab floor.

When the girls did seem to have some interest in science, it was directed towards the science of make-up. Indeed, the video could almost be a hip cosmetics commercial.

Maybe the video was trying to show that it’s possible to be both trendy and interested in science. Perhaps that does confront the stereotype of fashion-challenged science geeks.

Watching the campaign launch implode, I pondered the process I’d been involved in and the European Commission’s ability to contribute constructively to fulfilling the acute need to get more women into science. Those of us who advised them know the research, we know the arguments, and we formulated them accessibly. How could the result be so unrecognisable?

I started airing my concerns on Twitter. The debate was lively and engaged; it was nuanced. Twin sisters in Australia were provoked to write to me and elaborate on their views. Imogen and Freya Wadlow are 17 years old and they run two science websites, one for younger kids and one for teens.

How did two teenagers with award-winning websites view the infamous video? They thought it was a stereotype-busting effort! That’s right. Imogen and Freya told me that they receive loads of emails from girls who love science but hate being labeled geeks. Why, they ask, can’t scientists wear make-up, killer heels and be seen laughing?

If the campaign is directed at teens, maybe teens would have come up with a better teaser video. Imogen and Freya themselves wrote that they’d love the opportunity to try. Maybe they should get that opportunity. If the commission wants to show how hip and in touch it is, what could be more “2012” than crowdsourcing the creation of a teaser?

It is, after all, just the teaser that needs fixing, not the whole campaign. The website is full of the stories of young women scientists and descriptions of exciting careers. The plans for campaign activities in different European countries will draw on solid substance. There might even be a hint of some of the expert recommendations there.

Maybe crowdsourcing the creation of a teaser – based on the campaign’s website – would be the best way to find out what could tempt teenage girls to study science.

In fact, I think we should show the European Commission just how crowdsourcing the teaser could work. Let’s have a contest. Go to the campaign website and find your inspiration. Think about what could be a meaningful teaser video. And then make it!

I’ll show the best one at the European Gender Summit 2012, which will be held at the European Parliament on 29-30 November. For more details and the official rules for the contest, see The #ScienceGirlThing Contest.

The original teaser was a fiasco. You can do better. Let’s reboot the campaign and find better ways to attract the best young minds to exciting careers solving the most difficult challenges we face.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more

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4 Comments

  • Antonio Fábregas says:

    It is hard to believe anyone thought that video was a good idea. I’m amazed.

  • Please tell me that you actually had some real live teenage girls in your “gender expert group”. Not that it may have made a difference if nobody actually paid attention to your advice anyway…

    But when the campaign launch video becomes a global laughing stock, thus threatening this entire campaign, one can only hope that the EC will throw some business at your two young Australian teens and beg for their expertise.

    This reminds me of the emerging novelty of the “participatory medicine” movement, in which patients, for example, are actually included at medical conferences, asked about their experiences, consulted in solving patient care issues. “Nothing about us without us” – the unofficial motto of the PM movement – could also apply to convincing young girls of the appeal of a science career.

  • Jasia says:

    I’m kind of late to the party here, but I’ve just seen Your tweets on this issue for the past couple of days. I of course saw and was appalled by the video back in July. Given the recent publication of a paper (Moss-Racusin et al., PNAS) showing clear evidence of gender discrimination in the sciences, I have mixed feelings about marketing the field to young women who will, undoubtedly, be targets of discrimination in that realm. I understand that we can’t NOT encourage young women to go into sciences. But how can we make it less of a lion’s den? Or less of a glass cliff, in today’s nomenclature, from which a fall is near-guaranteed? If the people who made this (original) video are representative of those who actually have power, then I’m not optimistic about career advancement for women in STEM fields. Even in psychology, where women dominate in undergrad degrees, most professors at many institutions are still men (UiT, for example!). Won’t that happen in the sciences? And won’t that just reinforce the view that women are great mid-level achievers, but not really made for the top spots?

    This is not a constructive comment, I guess I’m just feeling dejected. Maybe I just think we are targeting the wrong group with this marketing.

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