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Guest Post: Science, It’s Not A Girl Thing Yet

2012/11/26

Earlier this year, the European Commission launched “Science: It’s a girl thing“, an initiative to address the shortage of women taking up scientific careers. It featured a famously terrible video launch, which distracted many people from some of the actual work going on. For example, the programme’s Facebook page was given over to real young women working in science, to give them a chance to interact with the target audience on their “home ground”. The first woman to take the reins was a colleague of mine, Virginia Greco. I wrote a little advert for her live webchat (part of the Facebook presence) a while back. I then asked her to write about her experience. It’s easy to bash the terrible launch video, but I thought it would be interesting to get some insight from the front lines, as it were. The result was this guest post.

In September, I was the host of an online chat, organized by the European Commission within its campaign “Science: it’s a girl thing”: I was asked to reply to ‘burning’ questions about my scientific work from young girls interested in science. My friend and colleague Alex was kind enough to advertise it on his blog, and he also asked me to write down some comments about this experience and the campaign in general.

I accepted with pleasure, so here I am. Before talking about the chat itself, I would like to start with some background.

The aim of “Science: it’s a girl thing” campaign is to encourage young girls to get interested in science and technology, in the hope that they will decide to pursue scientific studies and careers. The campaign works by involving women who have already embarked on such a career, showing them as flesh-and-bones scientists who can offer their experience and wisdom and act as role models for the younger generation,.

I am very concerned about the low percentage of women in science and of girls studying technical subjects. Moreover, I am used to working (and formerly studying) in a highly male-dominated environment, hence I am well aware of the additional complications faced by women who want to succeed in, due to prejudice and pushing down by their colleagues.

[For examples of the kind of thing Virginia is talking about, you need look no further than some of the comments in response to my first post about sexism in science: here, here, here, here, and here.]

Therefore, I agree with the purposes of this campaign and I think that, in general, it’s a good idea. I was very pleased to take part in it and honored to be chosen as a role model for young girls.

I was invited to the launch event of the campaign, which took place in Brussels last June and was a very pleasant and well-organized gathering. The role models had the opportunity to meet and get to know each other; an interesting debate was conducted by members of the European political institutions in the European Parliament Chamber, followed by a Q&A session: young students had the opportunity to talk directly to the role models and to ask them their questions.

The day was rounded off by a very nice aperitif in a museum where, besides tasting great food, we discussed a lot, exchanging our opinions amongst role models, organizers, and other guests. We also put forward some proposals for the future of the campaign. Our enthusiasm and engagement levels were very high!

That same day, while we attended this wonderful event, the official teaser video of the campaign was released by the European Commission, though none of the role models had ever seen it.

The rest of the day was spent travelling home, so it was only the following evening when we got back that we could finally watch the video. We found in our email boxes a letter from the organizers of the campaign, thanking us for taking part in the launch event and warning us that the teaser had generated some strong comments and complaints. In fact, it turned out that it was much more than just “some” complaints.

Anyway, that is when I finally had the chance to watch it. My first feelings were conflicted. I couldn’t find in those images anything that reminded me of the day I had spent in Brussels, apart from the logo. What I was watching looked like a commercial advertisement, made of plastic people and fake scenarios, while I had been meeting extremely real persons, who were not represented at all in the video.

Then I focused on the symbolism used, and my mood got worse. The video which was supposed to be the teaser of a campaign against gender stereotypes that push women out of the scientific arena, by convincing them that science and technology are just for men, was putting forward a rich portfolio of those same stereotypes. The packaging may have been appealing for young girls, but certainly the message transmitted was absolutely wrong.

A heated discussion arose in the comments section of the EU’s Youtube channel as well as the campaign’s Facebook page . We, the selected role models, exchanged our opinions too: the feeling that the video was not consistent with what we were, and we wanted to communicate, was common. We informed the organizers about our feelings.

Two days after the launch, as a consequence of such poor reception, the EC took the video down, explaining their motivations in a press release. I was personally relieved, even though the video had already gone viral so the damage had already been done by far. At the same time, the colour of the logo was changed: not pink anymore, but blue, green, and orange. Another improvement! (We were not very happy with that in the first place: at least some of us did not identify with pink, the stereotyped girl color).

The campaign started with a big blunder, then, but the intentions and the positive aims were (and still are) noble. The role models are real people, passionate scientists, and wonderful (at least the others… I cannot say about myself) women, who try to pursue their interests and careers in science. Therefore, the message could and can still be conveyed through other initiatives.

One such initiative is to have -in turn- one of the role models taking the leadership of the Facebook page of the campaign and adding posts focused on a theme connected with science and with her particular domain of expertise. Besides this, we have been involved in online chats, individual events in which each of us can enter in direct contact with young girls, parents, and teachers, who are interested in asking questions about our choices, out career path, difficulties and satisfactions.

On September 20th it was my turn. As it happens, I was the first in the cycle of managing the Facebook page, and second to do the personal chat.

Both were very interesting experiences for me. I’m an electronic engineer and a physicist, but I am also a licensed journalist (involved in science communication in particular). As a consequence, I had big fun in posting articles, pictures, and quotes on the Facebook page, and in trying to share some of my passion for science with a non-expert audience. My posts received several “likes”, indeed.

But the core question here is: who was the audience checking the Facebook page, commenting, and pressing “like”? I had a look at their profile pictures… and I discovered that almost none of them seemed to be teenage girls!

This suspicion was largely confirmed during the chat: it was extremely stimulating and engaged me a lot, but the (few) people who contacted me were teachers and parents, whose desire was to push their girls to study science. I tried to share my point of view and my experience. I explained that I have loved science since I was a little girl, but of course my life is not made up only of that. I decided to pursue scientific studies and I persevered even when it was hard (because studying science is certainly demanding, have no doubt, but also very rewarding), and many times I had to face and fight gender stereotypes and prejudice. In addition, I tried to offer some advice, to the extent I could, about how to show to young girls that science is not only for boys, that it’s actually cool, and that they are as capable as any guy.

At the end of the hour and 15 minutes of chat, I felt so passionate about what I was explaining, and happy to some extent.

But then gradually a bitter taste came to my mouth. It seemed that it was me the one who was most excited for the campaign, and parents and teachers who were concerned about their teenage girls. But where were they, the target of our discussions, the girls?

I tried, and I’m still trying, to figure out what is not working yet in what we are doing here, why we are not able to attract the younger generation. I imagine that in part there is a shyness issue: probably girls don’t feel like talking to us directly on Facebook and in a chat. They are certainly very confident with these communication means, but they probably don’t use them for educational reasons. In any case, we don’t look like their peers, someone to become Facebook-friends with. No matter how cool and easy-going we try to be, we are still adults for them, and adults of a special kind, an uncommon set of people, genius in the best cases, geeks in the worst.

On the other hand, when I have sometimes had occasion to give a tour of CERN to some young Italian students, the communication between them and me, mediated by their teachers, seems to be easier. Probably because of the different focus: the attraction was not me and my career in science, but the science itself, transmitted through direct sensory experiences. I was just an element of the whole picture, coming in the second place. So maybe the young girls (and boys) could first be caught by science and then, in some cases, get interested in who I was and what I was doing there.

I guess, then, that we still have to work hard in trying to get the girls interested in science in the first place. After that, we can show them how they can do it, and that there are many successful examples of women in science and engineering. In this direction, in my opinion one of the most useful ways is making them get their hands dirty as much as possible. But… alone, not together with the boys. I’m absolutely against single-gender schools, no discussion, but special workshops and events dedicated to girls and only girls can improve the situation. This is because I think in order to overcome whatever prejudices are at play while the young students work, the latter need to feel free, out of the scope of those who could judge them. If the little girls are among themselves and not exposed to the eye of their male schoolmates, they can really enjoy the experiments, concentrate, and conduct them as they wish, without competing with boys or being concerned about what they might think of them.

At the launch event there were indeed stands with hands-on workshops for young girls, and as far as I know they were well attended.

In general, I think that the effort made by the EU is praiseworthy and that the “Science: it’s a girl thing!” campaign may succeed in improving the situation, at least by fostering the discussion and keeping the subject on the table. But, at the same time, I feel that we are still missing the point or, rather, the target.

We have to reach out to the teenage girls. Not with pinky commercials, for sure; but by trying to engage them directly with the science itself, with the pleasure of asking questions about the world and looking for answers, of facing problems and searching for solutions by themselves. And most of all, with the reward that comes when you find a solution or an explanation.

I don’t have the answer yet; I’m still thinking and thinking of how to achieve this goal. For sure, I would start at a key turning point: toys. If you have a little daughter, niece, cousin, etc., please, don’t offer her dolls, princess dresses and pinky bags, but lego, intelligence games, toys that stimulate her creativity and the natural ability of every kid to get curious for new things and look for solutions. That’s because -in my opinion- it’s not during adolescence, but in childhood that the big gap between girls and boys is artificially created, by a society that prefers to maintain roles and stereotypes adopted and perpetuated for so long.

Virginia Greco

Thanks Virginia!

Since the European Commission withdrew the original video, they have been running a competition to find a more suitable replacement. A friend of mine has entered, and I’ve featured her guest post about it here.

From → science

12 Comments
  1. Virginia permalink

    Thank you very much Alex! :)

  2. I read your post and it reminded me of the same problems that are faced in the U.S. –I suppose it is faced in most of the world. And, yes it is something that occurs in childhood, many parents (for better or worse) unwittingly perpetuate these stereotypes. In my humble opinion, one of the reasons for the disparity is that the sciences are a hard. In an article published by the New York Times in November of 2011, the author cites how many of the initial science majors are unable to complete their initial choice of college major. The author cites the way in which U.S. college freshman are unable to adapt to the rigorous challenges of college.

    Many parents (and I am now a grandparent); we attempt give our children what is perceived to be the best–at that moment. It is in my hindsight, that I can see how children grow and develop into mature adults. Perhaps, life may be more cyclical than we truly perceive it to be. As more women start to put more cracks into that “glass ceiling,” as well as more individuals receive a 4 year college degree–I perceive that there will be a critical mass of educated individuals wanting science as a career choice. I have heard it said many times: life is not supposed to be easy–but embracing our choices will change the outcome.

    I wish you well.

    post script:
    If you are interested, the New York Times article was written by Christopher Drew

    Here is text link: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D06E1DC143CF935A35752C1A9679D8B63&ref=christopherdrew

  3. Zoe permalink

    Excellent piece Virginia; I wholeheartedly agree. I’d be interested to know whether the designers of the EU’s campaign video were male or female…

  4. Dear Virginia,

    Many thanks for sharing your experience. We have noticed as well that girls seem to be shy and sometimes don’t dare to express themselves on our Facebook chats. In recent chats however, more girls have participated more actively and we hope that this will continue. Thanks to some advertising, we now have a bigger share of teenage girls following us (more than 65% of our 15 000 followers are girls aged 13-18).

    We have also started ‘Science:it’s a girl thing! events in Austria, Germany and Italy where girls and boys took part to hands-on science activities in science centers/museums and to discussions with women scientists. The feedback from these events has been very positive.

    Many thanks for your support and we hope to see you again on our page or in other activities.

    The Campaign Team

    • Hi,

      I’m really pleased to see the Science: It’s a Girl thing! campaign team monitoring coverage of their activities, and I’m grateful that you took the time to respond. I’m also pleased that the Facebook chats are making progress in terms of participation; of course we can’t expect them to go perfectly right from the start and it’s good that lessons are being learnt along the way.

      Alex

  5. Virginia permalink

    I’m very happy to learn that more and more teenage girls are following the campaign. :-) That’s a great achievement! Thank you for this update.

  6. PGMChem permalink

    I completely agree with the last paragraph.
    It is during childhood, by playing, that you develop strong abilities that become assets, and toys like Lego or Meccano develop the target skills that are stereotypically ‘male’: eye-hand coordination, reading instruction scheme, building a mechanical system, three-dimensional representation… leading to DIY, assembling Ikea furniture and reading a map (exagerated on purpose).
    I’m getting angry when I hear (from men or women) that men are all football and cars, and women all clothes and shopping.

    The thing is, most parents are not helping either. Choosing toys according to stereotypes is already giving a handicap to the child’s future skills and interests.

    • Thanks for your comment, PGMChem. I agree, “Men ar efrom Mars, women are from Venus”-type thinking gets us nowhere.

      • Virginia Greco permalink

        Thank you for your comment, PGMChem. Of course I completely agree with you. Abilities and interests developed during the childhood are determinant. My brother is less than two years older than me. When we were children, I used to throw away dolls (I got bored quickly) and play with legos with him. So my parents understood what I liked and didn’t buy me dolls any longer, but other kind of toys. Nowadays -even if the roles are less defined and apparently the social pressure is less strong- when it comes to toys, clothes, advertisement, it is worse than when I was a child. Distinctions between male toys and colours and female toys and colours are very strong, almost shocking.
        As you say, parents should play an important role here (and teachers too, for what they can).
        Virginia

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