A few days ago, the European Commission launched a new project aimed at getting teenage girls interested in science as part of its Women in Research and Innovation initiative. It’s called “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, it has a snazzy website with lots of pretty girls and make up and colours and fun. They also released a teaser video that essentially manages to alienate everyone working in science: men, women, young, old. I wasn’t at all impressed when I saw it a few days ago, posted online by a colleague who was invited to the launch event in Brussels, and I don’t think I’ve seen such a universally negative response to any such campaign, ever. Here it is:
I’m amazed at the way the Commission managed to screw this up. I’ve attended an EC-sponsored “women in research” event in the past and it was clearly well-motivated, researched, and featured some excellent speakers. What happened here?
The tag line first of all is just weird. Science, “a girl thing”, really? And going by the video, by “girl” they mean a 17-year old in stilettos and a short skirt blowing kisses at the camera? I’ll repeat what I wrote recently:
When in doubt, replace “woman” with “old guy”, “non-white person” or “disabled person” and if that feels wrong, just don’t go there
Let’s try that for a minute. “Science: It’s a Black Thing!”. “Science: It’s a Jewish Thing!”. “Science: It’s a Thing for People in Wheelchairs!”. Yeah, doesn’t sound right, does it?
The video is extremely slick so I assume it was produced by a marketing or PR firm, at considerable expense. It features a nerdy guy in a lab coat who can’t help himself but ogle lots of smiley girls in tiny outfits. And there are lots of close ups of make up – lipstick, nail polish, powders etc. What does this even mean? You don’t have to be a barefaced sourpuss to work in science? (Oh right, thanks!) Or are they saying that instead of boring stuff like astrophysics and curing cancer you could be developing the awesome next generation of eyeshadow compacts? I understand I’m not the target audience for this video, but I do think we should show our smart young boys and girls a little more respect than this.
Why did they even bother with a “trailer”, and what audience did they expect to reach that a video-less campaign could not? The only things that really go viral on YouTube are dogs with stupid faces, dancing babies and Scarlett Johansson’s bum. The video was pulled from the site, presumably after they realised that everyone was slating it online, which I don’t understand either. Was this backlash really a surprise to them? Did they not show it to any scientists, male or female, before the launch? Why did they not stand behind it, and have a conversation about it? Much as I hate the video myself, controversies are not always a bad thing if they get a public debate going.
It’s all a little baffling. The project’s website actually contains some good stuff: profiles of European female scientists, a description of real-world challenges, and the events may well be really good too. The accompanying press release has lots of numbers and graphs about the under-representation of women in scientific careers. The Commission invests a huge amount of money into scientific research. They are in a perfect position to make a real difference. How did they fail so badly with this?
Curt Rice, who is Vice President for Research & Development at the University of Tromsø in Norway and who says sensible things about science and gender and open access, tweeted that he was on the expert group for the project, who are now preparing a statement. I look forward to learning a bit more about the background of this thing. The twitter hashtag to follow is #sciencegirlthing, and I expect this will rumble on for a while longer….
For dotAstronomy, Amanda Bauer has already proposed to make an alternative video showing some real women in science as another one of her creative/musical hacks. I hope it happens!
[Update, 26/06: Here's the statement from members of the expert advisory panel. It doesn't really add anything interesting, I guess they aren't actually allowed to comment on what happened behind the scenes. But I do agree that (i) fundamentally the discussion is important and should continue, and (ii) the Commission essentially has the right intentions.]