“Hot young girls in high heels. Powdered make-up exploding across bubbling and steamy apparatus. Equations written in lipstick. Sounds like a normal day in the lab for most women scientists. Except it isn’t. The scenes are, of course, snippets from the roundly and soundly derided ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video released to shock and awe–the bad kind–in 2012.
Born of a well-meaning but inherently flawed campaign from the European Commission, it has been criticised and parodied to the point that further condemnation for reinforcing stereotypes would be like pulling a girl’s hair and stealing her chocolate. Marie Curie’s appearance may arguably not be as attractive as a catwalk models, but if you could find visual props to picture a beautiful mind, she would be a shining star.
To be fair to the EC, it’s not hard to see why they thought they had to do something: a She Figures 2012 report points out that the share of women graduating at PhD level now stands at 46%, but women account for only 33% of researchers in the EU. And while 59% of EU graduate students in 2010 were female, only 20% of EU senior academicians were women.
Is the image of women scientists to blame for the lack of popularity of science studies? It is clear the problems begin before university and academia. The UK’s Institute of Physics has found that for the last two decades in the UK only 20% of physics students past age 16 have been girls, despite about equal success for boys and girls in physics and science exams leading to that point.
How much could changing the image of female scientists do to solve the two problems that persist? Namely, boosting girls’ involvement in science from an early age. And removing the barriers to top positions for female scientists when they get there.
A classic remedy to anyone with an image problem would be to try and alter that image through advertising campaigns. But do these get-girls-to-do-science campaigns really work? “I don’t know,” says Claudine Hermann, Vice President of the European Platform for Women Scientists who in 1992 was the first woman to be appointed as a professor at military engineering school École Polytechnique, in Paris, France.
The trouble is that such campaign often fails to convince. Hermann has spent the past 20 years immersed in the challenge and says there have been plenty of campaigns to convince girls—and boys—to go into science “But they have not been very efficient,” she says, “You cannot know what had happened if campaign had not existed.” Sounds like the perfect area to test a policy change through a randomised trial. Others concur that advertising has obvious limitations. “I don’t think one video will make any difference,” says sociologist Lousie Archer from King’s College London, who, like most, is not a great fan of the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video. But she says she could see what they were trying to do.”