Science: It’s a Girl Thing?

20 11 2013

Those who know me well will know that I am prone to getting a bee in my bonnet about issues of sexism and gender inequality. Yes, I am a feminist. But don’t worry, all feminism really means is: I believe that men and women should be equal.

There are many, MANY things I could write about on this topic but I will spare you a rant. Today I’m just going to share with you a couple of YouTube videos and highlight the problem of gender stereotypes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM, forΒ  short).

I’m not a gender expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well known that far more men than women enter into STEM careers, particularly the physical and chemical sciences. Why is this?

Some will say that men and women’s brains are fundamentally different; that women are better at being emotional, caring and nurturing, while men, as well as being physically taller and stronger, are seen as more practical, logical and rational. Ergo, women are better at being teachers and nurses, while men are better at being builders, army officers and scientists.

I disagree.

I believe that historically, men and women have been ‘nurtured’ differently and THIS is what accounts for gender stereotyped careers. Think about it: actually, there is nothing inherently more ‘girly’ about the colour pink, or Barbie dolls, or toy ponies. Girls have simply had it drummed into them, over the course of many, many years and some clever advertising, that these things are ‘for them’. ‘Boy’s things’ on the other hand are ‘not for them’ – “don’t be silly, girls can’t climb trees, ride BMXs or play with toy cars!”

And so it continues into adulthood. Girls and boys become disinterested in school subjects, and ultimately careers, that society says are ‘not for them’ .

The European Commission, in it’s infinite wisdom, decided to do something about the lack of females studying STEM subjects and entering STEM careers. Bravo. Problem is, they did this…

The problem with this video, in case you haven’t already worked it out, is that it paints science to be something it is not. And if you didn’t know, let me tell you now that science is NOT all sexy girls in short skirts and high heels lusting over hot microscopists and pink and lipstick. Oh, I’ve no doubt there are *some* sexy female scientists and hot male microscopists, and sure, science *creates* make-up, but… OOOOH! Sorry, I’m distracted by this LIQUID NITROGEN IN A BEAKER!!! *HYDROGEN*!!! Who knew science was so GIRLY!!!

Thing is, it’s not. Science ISN’T ‘a girl thing’ – it’s a PEOPLE thing. It’s for boys, but it’s also for girls. There is nothing fundamental about science that stops girls, or boys, from studying it or making a career out of it. Only the sexist ways in which society has been shaped – yes, largely and historically by men – has led to the situation where, for example, only one in ten engineers is female.

Ironically, given that this video was so badly slated by the scientific community and the popular press alike, it apparently DID result in more girls expressing an interest in studying science. But I think, or at least I hope, that this was a rebellious response to the outrageous stereotypes that the video perpetuates and not because it genuinely made girls think that science is pink and fluffy. In fact, if there are any girls out there who are convinced by the video that you can do scientific experiments in a short skirt and stilettos then I’m afraid you will be very disappointed when you are handed a labcoat and a pair of very unsexy safety specs.

This brings me on to the next YouTube video that I discovered today and which I think does a FAR better job of inspiring girls to become STEMmers. It’s an advert for GoldieBlox, a company that makes ‘Toys for Future Engineers’. Watch, and enjoy…

Of course, we can’t draw direct comparisons between this video and ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’. One is an ill-thought out European Commission initiative aimed at encouraging teenage girls to study science, the other is a toy advert. But the key message from the GoldieBlox ad is: Don’t Underestimate Girls – and I wholeheartedly agree with this.

Instead of dolls and ponies and tea sets, imagine if young girls played with toys that allowed them to make and create and experiment and engineer. There’s no need to make these toys pink and glittery because in real life, things aren’t pink and glittery. *Science* isn’t pink and glittery. It’s not sexy – well, not most of the time. It won’t necessarily score you a hot microscopist boyfriend, either.

But science IS really INTERESTING, and IMPORTANT, and VALUABLE. Scientific discoveries can lead to building cool stuff and discovering distant galaxies and curing nasty diseases and ending world poverty and famine. And if boys can do it, so can GIRLS!

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2 responses

22 11 2013
kenwhitestone

From the info you have given about you, I would have thought you love that video.
As I understand it u believe in a trained behaviour which results in stereotypes. So the question stands, what should we do to change it?

Well the fastest way of changing a system is from within. So with catering to stereotypes – which is one of the more effective ways in advertising – you create an interest, to look a little bit into science. In overall more people will look into science. Most will still find their profession/passion somewhere else but more than before will stick to a career in science.

Even more important, you mentioned girls are discouraged to look into science.
Teenagers are most influenced by their peers, not their parents not their schools the peers have the most influence.
So if u get a enough people to look into something, the reasons for it doesnt really matter, the view on that subject will change.

So in short the easiest and fastest way to change the current situation is to create sth that resembles a hype and you do that with emotional “arguments”.
It is advertisement, since when do they depict the reality but it works pretty well.

22 11 2013
lisaamartin

Hi Ken, your comment is a little hard to follow (sorry!) but I think we are broadly in agreement. To clarify, I don’t think girls are necessarily actively discouraged from going into science careers, but they are not so much encouraged – largely because, as I mentioned, science is often portrayed as being “for boys”. At the same time, many girls are brought up to fit a gender stereotype of what it means to be female.
I hate the ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ video, but in a sense you’re right, if it got enough girls to think about science (however badly it stereotyped them), then like it or not that is effective advertising. In fact, that is what happened. I just wish the EC had tried something a bit less cliched and a bit more inventive. It’s trying to get girls into science by saying, “Hey, science is for girly girls!”. Actually, the opposite is pretty much true! Science *isn’t* very girly at all, if the definition of ‘girly’ means pink, liking boys, wearing make-up and prancing around in high heeled shoes. But just because science isn’t ‘girly’ doesn’t mean it’s not *for* girls.
…And that is exactly why I *like* the Goldieblox ad.

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