In Defense of #sciencegirlthing


My follows on Twitter are mostly people in the science blogging circles, and when I was scrolling through my Twitter feed last Friday morning, I noticed a lot of people talking about the hashtag #sciencegirlthing.

Well, that’s not quite right — it sounded like women and men all over the Twittersphere had found the New Great Evil Against Science and were halfway through a public stoning.

So I clicked the link and watched the video:

My immediate reaction was a little laughter — especially when I saw the E.U. logo pop up in the end. I thought to myself, “Ha! Of course this had to be European.” The trailer, designed for a European Union science outreach campaign called “Science: It’s a girl thing”, had the kitch of a Mentos commercial and the gloss of a Spice Girls music video (admit it, you remember them) and that effortless continental chic.

Those Awkward Teenage Years

Over the past few days, the video has been slammed throughout the web for fostering stereotypes, sexist clichés, Hollywood glitz, et cetera. Many commented how this was a terrible way to encourage teenage girls into scientific careers, and how instead of catering to popular stereotypes, people should focus on highlighting the excitement and wonder of science and research.

But you know what I was worried about when I was 13 years old?

Girls, and whether they liked me. And being envious of the good-looking popular kids.

Not science or careers.

I don’t know what teenage girls are/were worried about, but I bet for a percentage of them, it’s boys. And being envious of the good-looking popular kids.

That feeling can make us feel bad about being smart, especially when being smart isn’t valued by our peers. At the time, it made me think about trading in smarts for popularity.

I loved science, but I was embarrassed to be with other geeks and nerds, even if they were my friends. Add to the fact that I had just emigrated from an Asian culture where being smart about science landed you all sorts of praise and envy — it could not have been more jarring. My jock friends teased my friend and me for being “pansy park rangers” because we liked to fish and always talked about nature and biology.

A video that hinted, Hey, you can be smart — and be popular and “normal” too, would have probably caught my eye.

Does this video satisfy that comfort? No, but it shows girls as confident, fashionable, having fun, popular (yes, in the Hollywood way), and catching the eye of a handsome “Dr. Microscope” (as someone on Twitter named the dude).

My 13-year old self would have died to catch the attention of a lovely Miss Dr. Microscope. But I think they were all too worried about not looking like one.

The video normalizes an interest in science. Yes, to a glamourized ideal. But that’s the world we live in. That’s the baseline each of us has to compete in for attention and individuality. And that’s just as true in an adult’s world — I wager the majority of Americans still looks at anyone remotely in the science field as awkward nerds, brainy geeks and intellectual snobs. Step outside the comfortable salon we’ve built ourselves, and you’ll find that mentality still out there.

That difference between the geeks and nerds and the rest of the Popular World — and the surprise when we find it juxtaposed or normalized — is also why we laugh at ads like this old one from General Electric:

These ads may be fantasies brewed up by Madison Avenue and clique culture, but you know what? Belonging feels good. Acceptance feels good. When you’re young and you haven’t found your way and identity yet, you probably feel pretty lonely– even when your role models tell you it’s okay to be yourself and march to your own beat. You still want to be part of the big group.

What a Scientist Looks Like

The thing is, the girly video was just a teaser trailer: the video profiles of the women scientists on the actual campaign website itself are gorgeous, high-production-value clips showcasing smart, confident women of various ages, nationalities and technical expertise, each of them having a balanced personal/family life and diverse hobbies.

Indeed, the profiles don’t conform to traditional girly girl types. One of the women plays soccer (football); another takes improv classes; one is in a band; another is seen having fun with friends after work (fro-yo never looked so cool) and another chilling out with some Adult Beverages.

You know, “normal-people” stuff. Stuff that boys want to do, too, for that matter.

And that teaser video got me to go to that site.

I understand the huge internet backlash, and I am not in favor of promoting stereotypes. At the same time, I have a feeling that many folks out there have forgotten what it’s like to be awkward teenagers and the probability that this trailer was not meant for adults. And it’s fairly obvious the trailer itself wasn’t meant to educate girls about research careers — it was probably just to get some girls onto the main website and watch the videos intended to serve that purpose.

Come in: Here is the fantasy that you’ve been conditioned to want. Now that you’re sitting down, here is a reminder that it’s okay to like science — and that you get to lead a “normal” life too — whatever you choose as normal.

Of course, popularizing science as a feminine thing could turn off some girls (there’s a recent study that talks about this, as Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan explains at Boundary Vision). And perhaps normalizing science as a popular thing may drive a stake in some adolescent nerd-hearts (“Great — now another thing the cool kids are good at — they’ve stolen my only thing!!!“).

And yeah, the branding for #sciencegirlthing could have been a little less dramatic. There should have been a series of teasers each taking different approaches at attracting girls. The pink lipstick in the logo seems overkill.

But, hell, what do I know — has anyone asked actual teenage girls what they think of all this? What about girls from various European cultures versus American culture?

Clearly, the organizers were not yet ready to unveil the full campaign — the website is incomplete, and their Facebook page was sparsely populated. Their other big marketing flop was probably releasing such a provocative teaser, while trying to play a “soft launch” strategy and not having a backup plan ready.

Yes, we definitely still need the Dr. Jane Goodall’s and Dr. Sylvia Earle’s of the science world to appear on popular media (which brings to mind: name all the women science role models in popular media today). We need passionate grassroots efforts such as #LooksLikeScience to put a personal face on the brand of science. And we need real scientists and researchers of all genders and diversities to reach out and show their faces in classrooms and at career fairs to leave favorable impressions and set an example of being a smart human being and having a happy, satisfied life.

But one teaser catering to glitz to get kids in the door is not going to hurt, as long as it connects to the real message. It might even help out a few awkward teens out there.

Mob or Gatekeeper?

My own personal thoughts aside, the most worrying aspect of #sciencegirlthinggate was the reaction of the science Twittersphere itself.

If science bloggers are to take on the mantle of gatekeepers of scientific advancement and strive to offer sound analysis of scientific information and science outreach, then we must take care to provide that service.

If you dipped a toe into the Twitterstream on Friday, you would’ve hit a wave of tweets damning the #sciencegirlthing teaser trailer, but very little discussion about the merit and context of the outreach campaign itself and the scientist interviews — which had a very different tone and substance than the teaser.

It was more like Frankenstein and pitchforks than news and analysis.

I also did not see any articles with interviews with the E.U. campaign organizers — an element a worthy journalistic investigation would have included or attempted. (My apologies if this is out there.)

Those of you out there who took care to share nuanced perspective, personal experiences, peer-reviewed research and those of you who stepped back to view the entire situation — I commend you, whatever your opinions may have been. Tell us more about what you think.

With #arseniclife and #sciencegirlthing, the science online chorus has proven to be a force for change that extends beyond salon sessions and into society at large. This power is very real, and it can be wielded with the zeal of a cable news pundit, or with the surgical precision of an editor’s pen.

Both can be means to the same end. Which one do you want to be known for?

— Ben Young Landis

Addendum: As many of you already know, the campaign took down the original teaser video late Friday. On the campaign’s Facebook page, you can read the campaign’s response to the public, as well as the exchange between public commenters and the profiled scientists, like this one. Or comments from consultants who advised the campaign, like this one.

Addendum II: Here’s an anecdote from “Laura”, a scientist friend and mom of two, with whom I was discussing the #sciencegirlthing issue: “My friend [Rachel] and I decided we had better learn to act dumb so we could fit in. It was hard work and we were totally unsuccessful. I still remember standing near the popular kids on the high school steps and overhearing them say with laughter ‘I bet Laura and [Rachel] will talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity at the prom.’ I was completely devastated at the time, obviously, as I still remember this incident 30 years later.”

Addendum III: Another sentiment shared with me by “Susan”, a communications specialist: “My own opinion on this is a bit different, honed by years of watching sexist come-ons to get women/girls to do things. I dislike that approach intensely, and am tired of it after decades of seeing it done, but you’re entitled to your viewpoint! In time, you may get sick of this approach, too.”

Addendum IV: In discussing #girlsciencething, consider and compare these other women-in-science outreach campaigns:

Addendum V: A reaction on #sciencegirlthing at Sociological Images, edited by University of Minnesota sociologists. See also posts by Alan Boyle at MSNBC; by NoisyAstronomer at Skepchick; and by Olga Khazan at Washington Post.

17 thoughts on “In Defense of #sciencegirlthing

  1. This is an interesting perspective, and I’m glad you raised it. But I still rather disagree. It showed the girls being popular…but not actually doing science. Just playing with makeup. Seriously, if they had opened that pink door at the beginning and the girl inside has whirled around with a flask and a petri dish instead of a necklace I think the whole thing would have gone up a step.

    I also think the videos of the women scientists are great (why were they not in the teaser?), and I’m upset that there’s such an awful teaser to get you to go there. I only went through to the site because other people noted the interviews were on there, otherwise I wanted nothing to do with it.

    But it’s an interesting perspective that you raise, especially that the science blogsphere/twitterverse/internetsphere could have an impact. I think we could do that by putting other things in the place of this teaser, like “This is what a scientist looks like” or other videos like those by Carin Bondar and Science Goddess. Many people suggested other, better videos of young girls doing science and showing what they’ve found. This is not just torches and pitchforks, it’s an effort to show how this could be done better. I also saw lots of people showing research that shows that campaigns like this teaser may be less likely to work. There are lots of torches and pitchforks, but we’re also eager to show how this can be done RIGHT.

  2. Thank you, Sci. I agree it wasn’t all torches and pitchforks, and I did notice that Carin Bondar and Joanne Manaster were prominent in promoting constructive discussions. The movement for #realwomeninscience (https://twitter.com/search/%23realwomeninscience) swept quickly and it seems like the EU office was quick to adopt it (https://twitter.com/EU_Commission/status/216270807926718464).

    I think as the science online community matures and continues to engage in social issues — and crossover with mass media — it will be an interesting exercise to map out how our ecosystem has evolved.

    By that I mean: what are the different roles people have taken on? For example, who are the innovators, the reporters and the policymakers? And of the pundits, who are the philosophers and who are the demogogues?

    I think insiders already have a pretty good idea who’s whom. But as mass media channels start to draw on the science online community for expertise and opinion, it will be interesting to see which voices are amplified first.

  3. You raise an interesting question in “what do young people really think about?” It’s those very same social pressures (girls, boys, popularity) that drive girls out of science at those critical ages, but I don’t think any of that will be solved by creating an unrealistic image of what they are supposed to be. Like lipstick-wielding boy-teasers.

    The thing is you don’t strengthen a child’s self-image or identity by teaching them to be anything other than who they are. That’s the failure of the teaser. The reaction and pitchfork party on Twitter did overshadow the honestly good interviews with young female scientists, that’s true. But that’s the campaign’s fault, not ours. Hopefully they will revamp the campaign and highlight those videos, and we can all move on to something constructive.

    The teasers weren’t meant for us? Well I hope they weren’t meant for teenagers. The few who watched without laughing were probably watching with disgust. It had nothing to do with being smart and normal. It just told people to be popular in a lab coat.

    • That came off sounding much more snarky than I intended. I think someone raising a different point of view is a good idea on this video. I just don’t buy that it would have resonated with the teenage mind at all.

  4. Replace “girl” with “black” or “gay”, and replace the video stereotypes with similarly hackneyed stereotypes of those demographics, and perhaps you can see what’s wrong with it? And how “just being a teaser” is not an acceptable excuse?

    What I think is great about science personally is that it doesn’t matter who you are, or who you know; what matters is what you do and find. That should be appealing to any under-represented group, and could be the basis for a campaign that doesn’t patronise.

  5. Had a short physics lecture on the use of light and shadow in using make-up. Too deep for teenage girls, but I think a few got it.

  6. Nice post! I see what you’re saying about the video’s potential to speak to teenagers’ need to be popular and accepted by their peers. However, I disagree with your take that “the video normalizes an interest in science”. I don’t feel that is what it achieves at all. It feeds into a culture that validates only those who meet that highly “glamourised ideal” – this doesn’t normalise science but instead tries to popularise it in a Hollywood way, which is not equivalent to normalising it.

    It puts the emphasis on the characteristics of the girls (“confident, fashionable, having fun, popular”, as you rightly say). And don’t get me wrong: you CAN be some or even all of those things and a great scientist. But putting shots of those girls in amongst shots of science equipment and make up doesn’t communicate science as a great choice of potential career. If I had seen this video as a 13 year old, this would have given me a completely wrong idea of what science was all about. So, is that what we want? It might attract some girls to take a greater interest in science but the true test would be if they would carry it through to a career if it didn’t meet the unrealistic expectations the video had left them with.

    It might have worked better (and caused less outrage) if the girls in the video actually ended up doing did anything scientific. The closest the video comes to that is having the one girl write equations on a board and, if I’m generous, putting on safety goggles. As the “Have you met…” videos show, there are amazing, real women scientists out there, actually doing science! These are great role models for aspiring young scientist (both female and male). And if the girls who thought the video was cool continued on to look at these, they could find a fantastic, much more real view of what a career in science is all about. This might reset their expectations of science they gained from the video. So my question is why did they need the misleading ‘marketing’ video in the first place?

    And in terms of the backlash I agree with scicurious (in the above comment): “This is not just torches and pitchforks, it’s an effort to show how this could be done better”.

    • Hi Sarah– thanks for writing. Sorry your comment didn’t get posted ASAP… it was lost in the message folders.

      I agree that if a kid watched this video and assumed “this is what science looked like”, then of course, this gives a very limited view of scientists. But at the same time, I think the typical stereotype of a scientist — bald, male, geeky, bespectacled — isn’t helpful either. We need both, and everything in between.

      I feel it’s a fair argument to call “popularizing in a Hollywood way” as “normalized.” That is the “normal” that the masses adore, whether we like it or not. Scientists might be respected, but we are still outliers and oddities to most people. We are not the norm.

  7. Thanks for this post, Ben, I think it’s an interesting discussion. However, I still think #sciencegirlthing reinforces a very common message for girls (and women) – that you can be whatever you want as long as you are ALSO hot. A useful way for understanding this is the “feminine apologetic” – powerful women posing for the male gaze to reassure men that their opinion of their bodies still matters. Since #sciencegirlthing made it abundantly clear that the girls in that video were posing for the male gaze (not actually DOING science), it felt like a big feminine apologetic to me. It’s impossible to understate the number of messages that deluge teenage girls about how to be attractive – a science video should really go beyond that.

    I admit, I was surprised at the strength of the Twitter backlash because the video just didn’t seem like anything new. Does anyone besides me remember Nerd Girls?

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Miriam. That’s a great point about the “feminine apologetic” — subverting oneself for the appearance of empowerment.

      I hadn’t heard about the Nerd Girls. But I will definitely agree that this type of advertising/strategy isn’t anything new.

      I agree that a science video really shouldn’t be encouraging one cultural ideal over another, but my take on the teaser is that it isn’t a science video at all. It’s an ad. And ads are supposed to tap into existing cultural ideals — whether we approve of them or not.

      Even though the teaser was is part a campaign about introducing girls to science, it in itself is not a science outreach piece, and shouldn’t be viewed as one. A friend said to me, “It has no substance.” I agree completely.

      But it will have cachet for some, because rightly or wrongly, there is a certain “feminine” ideal that permeates Western culture. Children are indoctrinated in it right from the start, from the mom that chooses to dress her toddler daughter in pink, to first time that child goes outside and sees other women walking on the street.

      By the time they are teens, some these girls (and boys) are /already/ deluded. So how do we subvert that and use that same tactic to expose girls to science?

      To take a page from ecology, would a bit of mimicry hurt?

      The anecdote from Dr. Reena Pau (http://reenapau.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/science-what-the-girls-think/) is telling. Kids who weren’t interested in science will latch onto familiar cultural images, which serve as safe guiderails to explore unfamiliar images.

      But when does that familar image verge on the “feminine apologetic”?

      I agree that we should always foster individuality and healthy self-identities, and I agree it would be abhorrent to tell little girls that the only way they can succeed and be confident is if they are pretty and attractive to boys.

      At the same time, I think we would also be deluded if we think preteens and teens are not thinking about physical attraction for a partner, and what that means to their appearance, behavior and gender identity. For one, how did Justin Bieber get so damn popular? Was it his talent?

      I imagine at this age, with all those hormones gushing about (lord knows how we all got through that time…), all those cultural ideals and social observations kids have absorbed to date will now come into play, to be copied and experimented with.

      Some of those ideals are clearly harmful and disempowering. But others will be less clear. Which behaviors, then, align with our development as sexual creatures, and which are unrealistic pressures exerted as a way of subjugation?

      Side note: Many a tweet has said, “Yeah, that’d be a great teaser… for MEN.” I have to admit, for me the most lasting image from the ad is of the one girl scribbling equations on the white board with authority and a certain badassery (in fact they flash this image twice). Equations scare the hell out of me and thank goodness writing gave me a graceful way to stay in the sciences, so I was really taken by that image of intelligence.

      • I think you’ve put your finger on it with advertising, but I disagree that this is a positive thing. Perhaps the reason this video got so much pushback from female scientists is that it made us feel bad, just like advertising does. There is a TON of research showing that advertising with idealized female bodies makes girls and women feel bad about their own bodies. Perhaps this works to sell beauty products and clothes, but I think selling science should be held to a higher standard.

  8. I want to thank the many people who have taken time to provide me feedback and conversation about this issue. Without beating a dead horse, I’ll comment broadly on the views I’ve read this past week.

    Hopefully, some of you recognized the discussion I was seeking to evoke: What is feminine and what is sexist? Was this video latching on to ideals of femininity, or through sex appeal? And can gender identities truly be discussed without the context of the sexuality?

    I ask this because the word “stereotype” was used a lot in discussing the trailer, and also because while some women saw it as sexist, others saw it simply as feminine.

    So it begs to ask, what is precisely the “stereotype” being fostered?

    One person’s ideal of femininity can be another’s idea of exploitation. This shifts with culture, social norms, and individual perspective.

    For example, commenter Alex (https://younglandis.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/in-defense-of-sciencegirlthing/#comment-452) invited me to substitute “girl” with “black” or “gay” to see the point.

    So let’s play on that prompt. Suppose someone puts out a teaser to attract urban youths to science — a teaser featuring the top young rappers today, in full bling rapping about science. Would that be racist, or niche marketing?

    Or consider will.i.am’s “i am FIRST” campaign, which feature a teaser with Snoop Dogg, Steven Tyler, Miley Cyrus talking about their appreciation of science (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYuOKb3gO7E). None are exactly stellar role models, and are representative of their respective Hollywood stereotypes, in costume and in persona. But they are viewed in a positive light here because they are using their celebrity to promote science.

    Interestingly, Miley Cyrus is seen here saying (at the 0:29 mark), “Everyone in this room is going to laugh at me, because I’m going to talk about how cool science is, and that’s because I’m a nerd.”

    Here is a teenage girl who definitely promotes a glamorous girly image and is scrutinized for her personal wardrobe choices. What if she were to produce a music video about science, in character?

    And why was she compelled or invited to say that statement?

    Now, it’ll probably be quite some time before someone from the advertising company fesses up to the real story behind their strategy (the E.U.’s public-relations factsheet aside). So let us for a moment pretend that they were wholesome folk genuinely trying to attract teenage girls to science.

    With that in mind, let’s look at our three models in the #sciencegirlthing teaser.

    Is their wardrobe sexualized or feminine? And at the 0:26 mark, where a girl curls her finger at the screen, is that a “come hither” to Dr. Microscope or “come join us” to the viewer? And indeed, the ad is full of fast cuts of nail polish, lipstick and mascara. What is the function of these cosmetic accoutrements?

    Okay, enough with the rhetorical questions. The theme I want to dig at is – what are we really criticizing about this teaser? Is it simply displaying one glossy subset of Western femininity ideals that another subset dislikes, or is it truly disenfranchising all women through promotion of a demeaning stereotype?

    Or perhaps addressing the issue in evolutionary biology parlance: as an item of clothing, are skirts functional adaptations? Why have they persisted in contemporary culture? Or have they exaptated into some other symbolic purpose?

    The more people dig into #sciencegirlthing, I think we will all realize that we’re not dissecting one little ad, and we are no longer debating what ought to be the face of science in youth outreach.

    I’m not a trained sociologist, but it seems to me that we’re really delving into broader, cultural issues that permeate society if not human identity itself. What is feminine, and what is masculine, and what of the range of human diversity in between? And if femininity is being defined, then what are the various accepted norms for girls versus women?

    Again, I am participating in the discussion at risk of seeming to be blind to sexism and to the clear discomfort at #sciencegirlthing voiced by so many women, including friends and mentors I respect. But I mainly want to be sure that the science blogging community wields its growing power with prejudice, by fostering big-picture conversations instead of reactionary fire storms.

    If we are tackling a complex debate, let’s recognize the real issues at hand, and give the discussion its due complexity and analysis.

    We are, after all, scientists.

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