As one blogger put it "The EU Commission may as well have put a lipstick on a string, and filmed 18 year old models doing a belly crawl after it from the nail parlour (or wherever they would normally be) to the lab bench." I’ve never seen a video so ill-received – a barrage of response videos have appeared on YouTube, and Twitter and Facebook are awash with criticisms, from both official sources, such as Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science), Nature (the most prestigious science journal), and most of my friends – fiercely intelligent female scientists who I have studied and worked with and learnt from are rightfully angry. As one friend put it “It’s nice to know Marie Curie slowly irradiated herself to death so we could watch a bunch of fashion models play with molecular models while not wearing lab coats.” (Marie Curie was the scientist who discovered radiation, paving the way for a number of important developments including chemotherapy).
The ad is inappropriate on a number of levels. A feminist friend once commented, "advertising is one of our worst enemies." She is correct, but we have the right to expect better from the taxpayer-funded EU Commission. The ad trivialises science and the important work that scientists do; it is insulting to women; and it is far too over-sexualised for something that the EU is aiming at minors (the target audience is 13-18 year old girls).
In advertising, women are by default stick-thin, scantily clad and without depth, intelligence or character. The women in “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” fit the bill perfectly, but I would have expected better from the EU Commission, which should be trying to tackle negative stereotypes such as these. To make matters worse, the Commission defended the video, saying it wanted to "speak [women’s] language to get their attention." The language of women? The person or persons who devised this ad clearly have a blinding ignorance of science that is second only to their ignorance of women. "When I think woman, I think pink!" We are not simpletons and you cannot interest our entire gender in something by showing us lipstick.
The overtly sexist way in which women are used in advertising is bad enough. But for the EU to stoop to this where the women featured in this video are meant to be representatives of successful female scientists is an attack on women and gender equality, whether meant that way or not.
Science is hard work, and female researchers are intelligent and independent. We have degrees. Many of us have MSc's and the majority of female researchers have doctorates or are working towards them. We work hard to get answers to complicated problems. We mean business and do not spend our days giggling over lipstick and pulling ridiculous faces at chemical formulas, doing catwalk struts around the lab to coquettishly peer over our sunglasses at a male colleague. To take a group of women who have achieved success through their own hard work, on their own merits and their own terms and reduce them into anorexic sex kittens who gasp and giggle over colourful explosions and lipstick is appalling. Maybe it would be funny if gender equality in science were real, but it is not. I can only speak for biomedical science, but women outnumber men at every stage apart from at the most senior levels, which are still male-dominated. The problem is not that we need more women at entry level.
Commenting on the campaign the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said, “We want to overturn clichés and show women and girls, and boys too, that science is not about old men in white coats".
Admirable sentiments, but to trivialise science with lipstick is extremely insulting to the female scientists – or, as we think of ourselves, “scientists” who do difficult and valuable work every day. I am investigating new ways to treat aggressive breast cancers that do not respond well to drugs. It’s an important project but I accept that it will be relatively thankless. When we are ill we will thank a doctor for prescribing a drug and thank a pharmacist for dispensing it whilst giving little thought to the team of scientists who worked tirelessly to develop and refine it. I’m happy to do it because I want cancer treatments to be better, but I would appreciate it if the EU would not release condescending ad campaigns that could be read as “female scientists only care about cosmetics.” The work we do is very important and this advertisement is positively insulting.
The focus must be on getting the right people into science rather than getting more people into science. I am very proud to be one of several researchers featured in a video made by the Irish Cancer Society late last year. Most of the featured researchers are female, and although we are not strutting our stuff in skimpy dresses and heels that would be positively dangerous in a lab, I think we look pretty good. But far more importantly, we know what we're talking about, care about our research, and we are doing work that is interesting and important. This is the kind of approach that the EU should be taking – showing that it is possible to be respected as a female researcher, and that you have a breadth of opportunities open to you to do interesting and important work, if that’s what you want from life.
If you want to get women into science, make a video about science. Don’t patronise my profession or my gender. Don’t use public money to pay for a video which not only over-sexualises young women, insults female scientists and alienates people to the point where the official video is removed just days after it is posted.
The EU Commission has removed the video, but between the way that women were portrayed, young women were over-sexualised, female scientists were positively ridiculed and public money was wasted on the video, the lack of even a public apology or any sign of abashment from the Commission is perhaps the real political story here.
Naomi Elster holds a 1st class Honours degree in Pharmacology and is currently researching for a PhD at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She blogs at http://nothingmentionednothinggained.wordpress.com/