I have been suprised at the almost universal condemnation of the short video produced by the European Commission as part of a campaign to attract more young women to ‘do science’.
You can see it on YouTube if you missed it first time round.
It has been called offensive, insulting ( Telegraph), and has produced a wave of challenge and criticism from women scientists in particular. ( eg Meghan Gray) because it ‘stereotypes’ young women.
Personally I liked the ad. but I think the furore about it highlights a lot of contradictions in our thinking about gender and science.
I’m not sure what the ad. will achieve – I am not sure what ads do achieve – but aren’t they about provoking desire?
Will this ad provoke desire among young women to be scientists? Not directly - but I don’t think that is what it is trying to do. I think it is trying to make the paraphernalia we associate with science: lab equipment, models of molecules etc look like the kind of environment girls can be feminine in – and I also think that in using the Charlie’s Angels imagery it is being ironic and playful.
Will it turn young women off doing science? I don’t think so.
Does it trivialise science and scientists? Probably yes- but then we have been arguing for years that girls don’t want to do science because they think it is difficult, hard, not sexy, not feminine and not fun. So if we think ads work then wouldn’t we want ads to present science as easy and fun (which could be construed as ‘trivialising’ it) sexy and feminine? Isn’t that a good thing?
But when an ad does this we criticise it as stereotyping young women. 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.
In the past we have tried the worthy ad. campaigns: Do science and make the world a better place; Do science because it is inherently exciting; Do science and get a Nobel prize like these female scientists from the past. We haven’t tried: ‘Do science and make more money than doing hairdressing’, maybe because the stereotype of scientists that scientists like is the one about love and passion for the work, and making original contributions to the field, and a lack of concern for mundane things like makeup and disposable income. But haven’t we challenged this one? Most people working in science and science related occupations are NOT fulfilling this traditional ‘stereotype’ of a scientist. They are technical team workers contributing to commercial [including health care] industries for regular wages and pensions – just like the rest of us. But their lifetime earnings are much better than women in traditional female jobs.
I don’t expect to see ads represent ‘real life’. Ads- so I understand – create lifestyle desires that influence our choices, they make us aspirational They can also be nice to watch even when you aren’t sure what they are selling. I hope this ad gets young women to aspire to ‘strut their stuff’ in a lab. I’d like it to work, we haven’t a great history of success in this area, it is time to try something new.
Heather Mendick also takes up this discussion in her blog on the Gender and Education Association Website