Selling Science as ‘a Girl Thing’

When the EU launched a short viral video to publicise their It’s a Girl Thing! campaign to get more women into science, it all kicked off in the blogosphere and twitterverse. The 45 second promo, which looks like a cross between a cosmetics ad and a girl group music video, begins with a young good-looking lab-coated male scientist looking up from his microscope to the shocking (and arousing?) sight of three attractive young women dressed in very high heels and even shorter skirts. These women giggle and provocatively gesture their way through the ad, intercut with overflowing test-tubes, models of molecules, lipstick and other girlie and scientific ephemera. Oh, and one of them gets to elegantly scribble symbols on a transparent board. At the end their fashionable shades transform into equally fashionable safety goggles. The music, with its single lyric, reminds us: ‘Science – It’s a Girl Thing!’ So is this how to ‘sell’ science to girls?

The clear online consensus is ‘No!’

YouTube and Twitter are full of comments along the lines of ‘What were the EU thinking?’ The video responses from scientist Meghan Gray and Electric Unicycle Crew are typical. The Twitter reaction can be found via the burgeoning #sciencegirlthing. Most people have been very supportive of the profiles of ‘women in science’ on the website (if you’re on Twitter, you can nominate women you know using #realwomeninscience), but that doesn’t stop them hating the video.

The EU quickly removed all traces of the promo from their website, uploaded a detailed apology and explanation and changed the campaign strapline from ‘Science is the basis for our make-up, fashion, music, and so much more. It inspires, enlightens and changes our world. So, what’s stopping you from getting more involved in science?’ to ‘Want to save lives? Keen to find out what’s lurking in the nether regions of space, or in the deepest ocean trench? Passionate about the environment!’

Personally I feel ambivalent about the advert. Although I think of myself as very ungirlie, music and fashion still sound way more appealing to me than the nether regions of space and the deepest ocean trenches.

What’s disturbed me in the reaction is how sure everyone seems to be that they know what works to attract women into science. It’s true that there’s some recent research evidence that hyper-feminine science role models can put off those very girls who are most enthusiastic about science. But actually what we know, as catalogued in the UK context by Alison Phipps, is that past efforts to promote science, technology and engineering to women have been profoundly unsuccessful. So why not try something new? Also, one of the things we are pretty sure about is that our Western image of science is strongly associated with masculinity and at least this advert can’t be accused of reproducing that cliché.

Some people have shared the view that the advert positively challenges the dominant image of science, but argued that it does this by reinforcing gender stereotypes – that young women are only interested in make-up and fashion – or that it sends out troubling messages – that young women have to be compulsorily kitted out for the ‘male gaze’. I have sympathy for these criticisms but feel that it’s unfair to level them at this ad in particular. Model good looks and fashionable clothing have become the norm across all media. The EU advert exists within this environment as do teenage girls (its intended viewers), who research shows are increasingly media-savvy and who might perhaps read this advert’s attempt to ‘girl’ science ironically (particularly given the frequent use of playful imagery of fluids oozing out of and overflowing from tubes and containers).

The reaction here is in stark contrast to the more positive one towards Computer Engineer Barbie – who toy manufacturers Mattel introduced because girl geeks everywhere mobilised to support the doll in an online poll – despite her having blonde hair and an anatomically impossible figure.

Does it matter that this promo looks like a cosmetics advert? Perhaps I’m getting old, but I reckon that most advertising nowadays has a pretty tenuous connection to the product its selling. I recently watched the TV première of Attack the Block in which every ad break was taken up with an interactive story of a writer called Brandon Generator – I think this was publicity for Microsoft but it seemed to be mostly about coffee and typing and Edgar Wright. Advertising uses sex and fashion to sell cars, clothes, films, music, and much more so why not science? As Gill Kirkup, one of the few women brave enough to come out as liking the ad, asks on her blog: ‘I am not sure what ads do achieve – but aren’t they about provoking desire?’

Perhaps the problem is that the under-representation of women in science means that pretty much every image of women scientists is subject to such close scrutiny that none of them can hold up. Gill goes on to write: ‘I think stereotyping theory is not serving us well. It has become self referential and a kind of black box theory which explains everything and nothing. Show pictures of conventionally attractive young women in flattering ways and such images are criticised as being stereotypes. Show unconventional attractive/unattractive women doing science in unflattering [‘realistic’ ways] and they are criticised as stereotyping women scientists as not being attractive/sexy and that girls won’t relate to them – desire to be like them. Show men doing science and ….well you know where I am going with this one.’

This raises the question of what kind of advert its critics want to see. This one really is over to you now as Curt Rice has suggested crowd sourcing ideas for a new promo – so why not enter the contest to design your own video or just post a comment sharing your reaction to the promo.

Heather Mendick, Brunel University, UK



2 thoughts on “Selling Science as ‘a Girl Thing’

  1. Maybe we should ask young women what THEY think? What would make science & technology attractive to them?

    I’m no longer ah young, and was pretty appalled by this ad. But maybe, young women like it?

  2. Uh, perhaps a naive suggestion but how about just making a series of adverts that appeal to various different types of girls?

    – JW

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