When science is a girl thing

Wendy Sadler bemoans the force of celebrity culture in determining our sense of self worth

Just over a week ago the EU released a ‘promotional’ video called Science: It’s a girl thing apparently aimed at promoting science to girls and women. The twittersphere went crazy with most people thinking (hoping) it was a spoof and venting hatred at the approach. If you haven’t seen it you should take a quick look here. (This is on the Telegraph page as the official ‘girl thing’ page seems to have removed the video…)

It is pretty awful. But to me the most shocking thing really was – well – how shocked everyone was. Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending the approach they have taken, which is patronising and over simplistic. But let’s be honest – they are advertisers. When was the last time you saw any adverts that represented what real people look like? The only company I have seen tackle it with any degree of seriousness is the ‘Dove’ real bodies campaign where they have at least used models of different sizes in their advertising. But they are still models!

It is a depressing fact about this world we live in, but many studies have shown how people make judgements based on appearance alone and how attractive people earn on average more money than those considered unattractive. What a horrible fact that is, but sadly many young people aspire to the world of celebrity, and let’s be honest you don’t get an awful lot of unattractive celebrity role models either.

I can still remember with horror the moment that a big funder of a role model campaign told me – with no shadow of apology – that we should lose one of our selected role models because she was unsuitable on camera (that is, overweight and wearing glasses – you couldn’t have had a more passionate and emotive presenter, so it wasn’t what she was saying, only how she looked). I think a little bit of me died that day, but I’m proud to say we stuck our ground and fought to keep her in. It was a small victory against a much bigger problem.

At Science Made Simple we strive to embed the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) as part of popular culture. I hate to say it but popular culture decrees that to be inspirational to others you should be less than size 10 and attractive. And it isn’t only women, though the criteria are different.

We shouldn’t sit back and accept it – but science is not unique here. If we are saying that science has some kind of moral high ground where it is intelligence alone and not attractiveness that gets you ahead then how can we prove it? As a woman I know that I am judged mainly on what I do, but also how I look when speaking at conferences and presentations. So are men – but perhaps to a lesser degree. Or maybe they just have a more generic uniform so fashion is less of an issue. Either way, I reckon if I spend a modest 10 minutes every day putting on make up for work it wastes me around 40 hours a year. Imagine what I could get done with 40 hours to spare.

So – I should just stop wearing make-up and brushing my hair (I have two kids, it’s a distant memory that my hair saw more than a brush in the morning!)? Not long before the whispers start that you have ‘let yourself go’ or are ‘looking tired’. Very sad – but true.

I wish I had the answer. Scientists and engineers come in all shapes and sizes. Role model campaigns generally don’t. How awful would it be if we moved from a position where girls say ‘I’m not interested in that’ to a place where they start saying ‘I’m not pretty enough to do that’. I think this is one area where STEM promoters should strive NOT to go along with the ‘popular culture’. Let’s try and promote ourselves as a sector where acceptance of difference is the norm – not one that aims to fit in with the shallow nature of the celebrity world.

Wendy Sadler is Director of Science Made Simple and a trustee of the IWA. She blogs here.

One thought on “When science is a girl thing

  1. Sometimes what people take for sexism is simply look-ism. Why did Tony Blair not Robin Cook become leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister? Because one looked attractive and the other like a garden gnome. Few in politics doubted Cook was the most able politician of his generation but he himself knew he couldn’t get to the top in the TV age because of his appearance. In science, unlike politics, being unprepossessing is not fatal because the work can speak for itself. But I don’t doubt being handsome can help with first impressions, even there. We ugly people just have to accept that’s what humans are like.

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