It's a Girl Thing

By Sean Carroll | June 22, 2012 9:34 am

Update: Ha! They took down the video. Fortunately it’s copied here. The EU commission has acknowledged its goof, and wants to make a list of real women scientists.

I can’t come up with a better phrase for this video than Peter Coles did: “patronizing drivel.” And YouTube users — not always the most discriminating bunch — agree, giving it “55 likes, 1,848 dislikes.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZtMmt5rC6g

They mean well. It’s a video from the European Commission on Research and Innovation, trying to get girls interested in science. A noble goal, and we should be thinking of innovative ways to make it happen.

The problem is that whoever made the video clearly starts from the assumption that girls hate actual science, and therefore the route to increasing their interest is to pretend that science is all about lipstick and sunglasses and runway models draped in pink. Science isn’t actually about that. But science is interesting! For girls and boys alike.

If you want to make science seem exciting to girls, it helps to start from a perspective that science is interesting to all human beings, and that girls are human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Top Posts, Women in Science
  • Mike

    To quote Guybrush Threepwood, “It’s… pink.”

  • Chris

    It might actually make boys go into science thinking they can meet girls.

  • Julie

    I agree.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “It might actually make boys go into science thinking they can meet girls.”

    Reminds me of a quotable quote:

    You are in big trouble when you start writing software to impress girls.

    —Bruce Ellis, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO VMS

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  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    Heh, saw this on a bazillion other blogs, finally decided to watch it while I was here. Probably slightly worse than I would have even thought… It almost looks more like they were trying to market to male Esquire readers than to women! :D

  • Vicky

    They missed a really good opportunity there. They could have still gone with the all the makeup stuff and made the point that “science is what makes this!” L’Oreal has (had? I’m not sure) awards for young women scientists. I think I’ve seen stuff from them before showing how things that girls are typically interested in (I say typically, but being sat in my office with no makeup and hair like a birds nest I know this is a ridiculous generalization) are made possible through science, and showing the women *doing* the science. Not showing some girls prancing about while the creepy looking bloke in the corner watches them.
    Eugh. I saw everyone sharing this video this morning, I was hoping people were over-reacting. I might go back to bed.

  • NR
  • macho

    So wrong in so many ways…

  • prasad

    I disagree it’s saying “science is all about lipstick and sunglasses and runway models draped in pink” or at least that’s far too uncharitable. What I’m pretty sure they wanted to convey is, girls who are into “lipstick and sunglasses” can also grow up to do science, and shouldn’t imagine they’ll be out of place, or seen as “unfeminine” stipulating that this is how they want to be seen (at least I’m guessing that’s what the gawking guy is there for). And they found a pretty cringe-worthy way of conveying that.

    However, I wonder how anyone should actually go about making *good* video that shows girls that there are women of type X doing science, where X iterates over personality and visual profiles sterotypically anti-associated with science. (here, girls into fashion and such). Clearly one way to do it is to make videos of women showing at least twenty five, so you can show a representative cross section, showing the old and young, different races, women who wear plastic glasses, women in high heels, or in overalls, and playing chess or on skateboards or with a violin in hand, ad infinitum.

    But what else? Suppose you want to make a video telling young girls specifically that they can be into their appearance and fashion and such things, and it shouldn’t disqualify them from doing science. Constructively, how would you go about it? It’s quite easy to bash the good people who got this laughably wrong.

    Finally, re. the perspective you suggest instead: “it helps to start from a perspective that science is interesting to all human beings”

    Um, I’m pretty sure that can’t be right in encouraging *any* group to do science. No, science manifestly isn’t “interesting to all human beings” any more than ballet or jazz or history are interesting to all human beings, or all sciences are interesting to this human being. Starting from that assumption likely goes nowhere, the more since any argument that is completely generic like that ignores anything group-specific, like all the reasons there are fewer women in science.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    The question is if the video had shown “plain Janes” instead would it have been criticized for promoting a stereotype about female scientists? (Remember all the movie critics who said that the Bond girl who was a nuclear physicist (in the film) couldn’t be a nuclear physicist because real female nuclear physicists aren’t that sexy?)

    Maybe the best approach would have been have some real female scientists.

  • Katie Yurkewicz

    It’s rare that one communication vehicle can embarrass me on three different fronts (woman, scientist, science PR person) – but this has done it in a way I never dreamed possible. And it’s an even bigger shame because the campaign’s videos of actual women in science are pretty good:
    http://science-girl-thing.eu/profiles-of-women-in-science#

  • http://www.leekottner.com Lee Kottner

    Please do not make me deconstruct this from a feminist perspective, Prasad. There’s so much cultural baggage in this video that it makes my head explode. Here’s a sample: it starts with the male scientist’s gaze evaluating the girls who are “presenting” themselves to him. He’s presented as the norm right off the bat. Argh!

    And it’s clear you totally missed Sean’s point with this comment:

    “No, science manifestly isn’t “interesting to all human beings” any more than ballet or jazz or history are interesting to all human beings, or all sciences are interesting to this human being.”

    The point is that we don’t begin with the assumption that only girls or only boys will like ballet or jazz or history, therefore all those subjects and arts are interesting to all human beings. Any subject can be interesting to any human being if you don’t tell them it’s exclusive to one group. It’s the potential, not the actuality.

  • http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com cormac

    I suspect they lost the original video and this was knocked up the night before the deadline; it’s not just patronising, it’s also a crap video, consisting mainly of the main characters taking on and off sunglasses. My students could knock up something better in an hour..

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  • Screech
  • prasad

    Lee Kottner – I didn’t think I was defending the actual video; surely my calling it “cringe-worthy” might have suggested as much!

    I was asking if anyone had good ideas re ways of telling young girls who are worried about not seeming fashionable and girly if they do science that this isn’t something they should worry about. I don’t think it’s enough for example just to deplore the labeling of interests as feminine or masculine, or work toward a world where boys and girls don’t face different stereotypes. At least those are much larger and longer-term goals, and I don’t really see why we should make treatment of the woman-in-science problem contingent upon fixing the larger issues first.

    Clearly in an ideal world you wouldn’t have interests pegged as feminine or masculine, and the former especially wouldn’t burden girls into shying away from certain disciplines, but in that ideal world you probably wouldn’t need science and music and philosophy and filmmaking fighting (what in that world would be) red queen races to attract different demographics. In the world we live in, there are plenty of young girls who’re told they need to be feminine, and science is not, while young boys face no stereotype that says doing science is unmanly. Don’t just tell me caring about adjectives like “non-masculine” or “non-feminine” is silly; preaching to the choir, as it were.

    I think telling those young girls who’re brought up to care to care about stereotypical femininity, that science is in fact quite compatible with being “feminine” is worth doing. Again, this can be done poorly or well. This ad shows how to do it poorly. Vicky in #9 suggests in passing a way to do it well – all those materials and lipsticks and such are very much science the exact same way tanks and football trajectories are. We might show maybe a female scientist making a new wrinkle free, water repellent synthetic fabric, then wearing it as a really fashionable skirt, I dunno. Don’t just tell me girls shouldn’t be told to think fashion is uniquely theirs. They are, and there’s no reason to decide not even to reach those girls to do science. In any case, who decided that stereotypically manly examples don’t denigrate science, but stereotypically feminine examples automatically do? If there were an ad showing kids making potato cannons, would anyone say it was dumbing down science to appeal to boys? The issue (to me) is whether the stereotypical gender-specific “selling” is done stupidly or well.

    The point is that we don’t begin with the assumption that only girls or only boys will like ballet or jazz or history, therefore all those subjects and arts are interesting to all human beings. Any subject can be interesting to any human being if you don’t tell them it’s exclusive to one group. It’s the potential, not the actuality.

    I hope I make clear why I think (your defense of) Sean’s ideal world theorizing about how to attract the person at random to science isn’t that useful; we aren’t talking (only) about a generic lack of interest in science. We’re talking about a non-ideal world where some people (girls) but not others (boys) are told – and you are not the only voice reaching them – that science isn’t for them, given that they see themselves as being certain kinds of people. Your arsenal for targeting that can’t act as if all kids are hearing from the rest of the world the same exact message.

    To me, this is all rather like Obama saying during the ’08 campaign that he wasn’t a muslim, not that there’s anything wrong with that! In a perfect world he wouldn’t need to make the first part of that statement, but in the perfect world he wouldn’t feel called upon to make ANY of it.

  • blair

    Video is private. I’ll have to search youtube for it, maybe its become an embarrassment to its creator.

  • meh

    psh! everybody knows science is only for goth girls.

    Seriously though, there are some pretty famous lady physicists. Amy Mainzer, Vera Rubin, that hot red head Carrie on Mythbusters…etc.

  • http://charityengine.com Mark McAndrew

    Also from the same producers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w
    ;)

  • http://amazonlivedeals.com Jiyo Charlie

    Science has been boys world for last 2 millenenums – There are only a few madame curies out there. Kitchen is science too, raising kids is science too. I think there should be more learning aids like this that focus on girls and not boys – http://amazonlivedeals.com/lego-10175-star-wars-vaders-tie-advanced-starfighter/ . This will tremendously help girl kids get exposure to science.

  • Swinetist

    This is an unprofessional and borderline sexist video but by no means the worst produced by the EU’s media (propaganda) arm.

    Unconvinced? Watch this notoriously racist EU “growing together” video, which depicts the BRICs nations (minus Russia) as violent dark-skinned males attacking a white woman (Europe). Complete, shameless falsification of history considering that European nations were the aggressors and colonizers. Tells you more about the mindset of the EU than anything else.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlOzeJ5iqME

  • Clarence

    Science is not “unmanly”?
    Last I heard being a “nerd” or a “geek” wasn’t a good thing for a man, at least if you weren’t a financially successful one.

    People do what they love. Many women don’t love science and they don’t particularly treat the men who do science or technology very well. The feminists on here would have you believe that the only reason that more girls don’t do science or technology is because of the evil male geek culture. This is ridiculous on its face, and this whining also overlooks the fact that as a percentage the amount of men and women who get degrees in science is rather pathetic. We need programs that attract both boys AND girls to the sciences, instead this post and the comments are basically a bunch of whining about a video whose heart is very much in the right place.

    Regardless, if science had more sexual cultural cachet or if one could promise a very lucrative career, I’m sure we could get more men and women into the fields.

  • Magoonski

    The EU Commission must be made up of all men who are REALLY old fashion because this video reflects nothing about reality.

  • DieFledermaus

    I’m a guy and I wish my science were this glamorous.

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  • Fluttertoes

    Try telling that to guys who do ballet on pointe when they go shopping for pointe shoes. Damn near impossible to find any.

    Fortunately, the shoes last nearly forever, since men aren’t allowed to dance on pointe professionally, except in drag.

  • Tony Mach

    The video is as awful as Oingo Boingo’s “Weird Science” – but Oingo sounds better.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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