Saturday 23 June 2012

Science. Probably a girl thing.

Like most people I saw the Science: It's a Girl Thing! teaser on Friday. My first reaction was "meh". Watch, ignore, move on.

But apparently it has ignited all sorts of controversy. Within hours my twitter feed was filling up with people - mostly not girls, not scientists, or both - who were slamming the advert for being too pink, to feminine... in short, too stereotypically girly.

Disclaimer: my science heroes as a kid were Mr Wizard, Carl Sagan, and Jack Klugman in Quincy M.E. Not overly feminine, I'll admit.

Awesome role model for chicks

While I found the original advert a bit like Cosmo on acid and really not to my taste, it's fair to say the UK media Twitterati were not its intended consumers.

I wouldn't have been impressed with the trailer even as a teenager, but then, I already knew I wanted to be a scientist and had already stopped caring what the mean girls thought. Not everyone who could be interested in science gets there by age 13.

So, about Science: It's a Girl Thing! does it hit its target, or does it fail?

What a lot of the negative comments focused on was that this was funded by the EU. For those who don't know, the EU funds a lot of projects under its Framework Programmes to not only conduct research, but also to promote science and technology in general.

A few years ago I worked on an EU project, for instance, that was interested not in research per se, but in managing a consultation about existing knowledge in the area (the contribution of particular pesticides to child neurological development). We organised conferences on these themes, and produced guidance documents for the EU on various related subjects.

Being able to present well was a vital part of the job. It wasn't the coal-face of research that most of us came from, but if you think things like that aren't important to science in general, you're much mistaken. As far as EU-funded projects go, making videos to try to get teens to think about science is absolutely within their remit.

The second thing is that the video everyone objected to was a trailer. As we all know, trailers are sometimes misleading. In this case that's definitely true.

If you look at the other videos associated with the project - something very few people seemed to do - it's clear the teaser is not the meat of the campaign and was probably made by a different team. The teaser had been removed presumably because of the negative reaction, but the rest of the videos are still there. Those videos cover things like a day in the life of a virology student, a nanotechnology engineer, and a bioengineer from Helsinki. With nary a pink lab coat to be seen. I dare you to go and tell any of these women their work is "fluffy" or "inconsequential".

Rest assured the project will come with a follow-up assessment of how well it did reaching its target audience... an audience that, by definition, is not you. At least for once we were not treated to the usual monochrome 'woman with hair in a bun looks at petri dish' or 'woman at lab bench peers into microscope' crap. Like it or not this was a campaign that was trying something different and for that alone should be commended.

 For all you know, she's got eye makeup like a drag queen back there.

Someone tweeted at me that there's research that "proves" this sort of encouragement of girls doesn't work. So I went and had a look at it.

To summarise, "Betz and Sekaquaptewa recruited 142 girls aged 11 to 13 and showed them mocked-up magazine articles about three female university students who were either described as doing well in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM), or as rising stars in unspecified fields. The three also either displayed overtly feminine characteristics or gender-neutral traits."

Apparently the subjects reacted negatively to the girly girls. Interesting stuff. But it's not clear that the paper sought to define an approach to addressing attitudes about women in science. Rather its results seem to confirm what surely we already know: that these negative associations exist and that people do not see femininity and science as complimentary. If you're going to write off visible femininity being not-opposed to science ability based on a 'personality science' study that serves to approximately tell people what we already know, then why bother doing anything?

Then there's the tone of the criticism in general which is, frankly, as condescending as it accuses to advert of being.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is making a career change into science. I found myself getting somewhat irritated that she, unlike me, did not appear to be willing to follow science to the nth degree and put her nose to the unrewarding research grindstone. Rather she wanted a degree in a subject she was interested in that could lead to a solid job in a few years' time.

She basically caught me out making the very assumption critics of the Girl Thing campaign are making: that if you're not on track for a Nobel prize, then you're not good enough for science. I realised how many of my assumptions about what science is "for" were shaped by my education-positive, science-positive upbringing... a background she did not have. In other words, the luxury of wallowing around in academia? Was not of any interest to her. She's the best judge of how to live her life - not me.

It felt pretty shit to realise what I was doing (sorry, S).

This points to what I feel is a greater malaise and one which seriously does hamper achievement. When we already know what class and income barriers there are for young people - not only girls - to get into white collar career paths, why would we want to make that worse?

We have to acknowledge that something that offends your taste may not actually have a negative effect. I hate CSI and Silent Witness. I hate forensic fiction shows with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. As someone with a PhD in forensic science, I feel it cheapens the real science and misrepresents what we do.

However, I can't deny the simultaneous explosion of students into forensic science that accompanied Marg Helgenberger and Emilia Fox swishing their luscious locks over murder victims. An explosion of students, by the way, that is predominantly female.

In yr crime scene, soiling yr DNA evidence

I would probably raise an eyebrow at any colleague who told me that they got into forensic science because of CSI, but to be honest, is that really any worse than my love of Quincy? And does being dismissive of eye-candy actresses pretending to be like me make me a better scientist than my CSI-loving colleague? No, it doesn't. The difference in our influences is not a matter of ability, it's a matter of personal taste, and that is something which is in no way correlated to being good at the job.

It's an effect that is not uncommon, in fact. Loads of people looked at Indiana Jones and fancied a go at archaeology. I'd wager Ally Beal had some impact on the law profession. Maybe the key to getting more young people interested in science isn't having a snarky blog only people exactly like you read (controversial, I know), but having relatable images in wider media for others to observe. Even if those images happen to be model-pretty and a bit daft.

(Insert your own paragraph about the impact Brian Cox will surely have here.)

Whether the rapid post-CSI expansion will have been a good thing for forensic science is another conversation. But it's interesting to see this happening largely at the former-poly universities. I would hold that these girly girl characters have made the field relevant to young women who had the innate ability to go into any science, but perhaps lacked the self confidence and support to see which field might be most relatable to them. Things which some of us take for granted. Having the confidence to strike out and do something different is not a given for everyone. And yes, this is absolutely a class thing... and a girl thing. It is all kinds of a privilege thing.

Admit it, you don't know that she didn't do that herself.

If you work in a lab with lots of other women, you'll see girly girls, tomboy girls, and plenty of others in between. It literally takes all kinds. Ability to do well in STEM subjects is not a function of appearance or sexiness.

But at the same time looking good and being sexy aren't barriers to being capable at science, either.
With so many people concerned about the crisis in young women wanting to be Kim Kardasian instead of Madame Curie, maybe it's time to acknowledge that we need to cast the net a little wider. Your experiences as a woman are not limited to these extremes.

While the original splashy video has been removed, I'm not sure this is a victory of any sort. I'm a little disappointed they turned tail at the first sign of criticism. Frankly the tone of the backlash provided a level of coverage the rest of the campaign would not otherwise have had. And if it turns out to have been misguided as so many believe, then what better way to learn how to improve the campaign?

But my guess is that regardless of whether or not you like pink and whether or not the advert offended you personally, the outcome will not have been all negative. The assumption that someone who aspires to look like a Kardashian can't or shouldn't become interested in science is frankly bollocks. And the assumption that young girls should be influenced by whatever the chattering classes deem appropriate is also bollocks. If that offends the po-faced middle class - for whom access to science careers is not in question anyway - then so be it.