Over the past week or so, two texts in particular have pissed me off no end….
The first was a video produced back in 2012 by the European Commission for their website ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ (http://science-girl-thing.eu/en) aimed at attracting girls to science in the EU. Apparently the best way to get girls interested in science as a career is to ‘speak their language’ which seems to be all about fashion and being attractive to men. See the ‘enlightened and inclusive’ images of sexy girl-scientists strutting their stuff in stilettos admired by a gormless male scientist.…and hey girls, we know you love makeup: you could invent a fantastic lipstick or blush!!! (Is that what they really think girls are all about? And more worrying, are girls starting to think that about themselves?). I’m sure it comes as no surprise the video was removed after howls of protest. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so disturbing. Judge the video for yourself:
The second was an article by science alert (see link below) concerning the discourse around the ‘revelation’ that the author of the popular facebook page ‘I fucking love science’ was actually a woman! Well, firstly that information was available if one cared to click on the ‘About’ link on the page (however, the practice of some women hiding their gender to be taken seriously continues) and secondly why the fuck couldn’t she be a woman (to use the current vernacular)? Again we have this assumption that a commentator on science and in particular the style used by this page which is funny, clever and sometimes irreverent, could only be a man. Tragically, this type of assumption is not the exclusive domain of men; plenty of women are happily buying into sexism and thereby reinforcing the gender barriers and obstacles for women in science.
The Guardian tried to help with suggestions of how to turn girls on to science and failed abysmally! They came up with some top shelf advice for parents: such as how to encourage maths skills: “make your domestic scenario more mathematic[al] and scientific. Shopping is filled with math problems, particularly if your daughter wants something that is too expensive”; and how to encourage collaborative skills: “Encourage… collaboration in your sleepovers or birthday parties. Have the girls cook dinner, or bake cookies or tie dye t-shirts together”. Absolute gems.
Maia Szalavitz (2013) says the reasons why women are underrepresented in sciences in countries where women are treated more equally is not about women’s aptitude (of course!) but whether the field is welcoming and inclusive and accessible.
Retention is a major problem. This is partly due to reduced career advancement opportunities due to the ole boy’s club mentality or women are overlooked as they have less full-time years and hence less benchmark achievements (e.g. papers published/PhD students), and they may end up leaving altogether due to competing carer demands. While the numbers of students entering university to study the sciences are similar for young men (45%) and women (55%), beyond a doctorate, numbers show an increasing difference as you move through the levels of senior positions (above senior lecturer, female representation falls to 10% or less depending on the type of science)(Bell, 2009).
So, science itself needs to work on its PR and girls need to be exposed to science in a meaningful, inclusive way (The Guardian was sort of on the right track, I’ll give them that) with positive, VISIBLE female role models. Essentially, girls need to know that they too can be scientists and…..be SMART! There needs to be more flexible opportunities for those women in science so they can advance their careers, and governments can help by providing support via paid family leave and access to affordable day care. OK, these are the same old issues and conditions that feminists have been arguing for and have somewhat successfully gained for what seems like forever now. But there is a new factor that has raised the stakes: the silencing of reasonable discourse due to constant bombardment of messages of consumerism, individualism and sexism via social and mainstream media. And sexism is at the root of the disengagement of women from science.
Considering sexism (leave the others for later), the current stereotypes in the media of girls and women are appalling. Go for a wander online if you dare. It seems girls and women are all about their appearance, their attractiveness to males (sexy over smart always!??), they love spending money, love gossiping, are fragile and need to be protected (but are also there to be used).……and more. The messages are so damaging to their sense of self and wellbeing. But it doesn’t end there as the attitudes of boys and men and their subsequent behaviour towards girls and women are also being influenced. We desperately need to hear the voices of intelligent, sensible, articulate women and men.