Zapping on Tweeter today I noticed Helen Arney (watch her geek songs, totally worth it!) retweeting this video:
Science is a girl thing.
I don’t exactly remember last time I saw a female colleague of mine walking in the lab on 13 cm of high heels, posing like models in front of the UV machine, or getting so exited in front of a non-sense math formula on a board. If this wasn’t bad enough, I also don’t recall any of my male colleagues looking so good behind a microscope.
Who had this odd idea to make science looking like the launch of the latest Versace collection? The European Commission for Research and Innovation (R&I). YES. I love you, Europe.
This bunch of girl stereotypes squashed in 50 seconds of tester were intended to promote ‘Science: it’s a girl thing‘, the latest EU R&I initiative to recrute more women by the research benches. And what women!
One thing at the time.
The paucity of women in research fields is an old problem. Despite what your uncle would tell you about “all doctors and no one left to work the field”, scientists are not in exceeding number, and when you count how many of those are women, you hardly hit the quoter. By 2020, EU wanna get 1 million more researchers in its union countries, half of which must be women.
“We cannot afford to waste any talents. We need all the best people working together, whether women or men” said yesterday Màire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for R&I, launching ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ to the press.
I dug into this business and I found that EU published in 2006 the report named ‘She figures 2006‘ that put up some statistic about women in research. Fortunately, I didn’t have to read all those 116 pages, thanks to the intro given by Mr Janez Potočnik (at the time the EU Commissioner for R&I). “Women remain a minority among researchers” writes Potočnik, “but we are on the right track: from 27% in 1999, we moved to 29% in 2003”.
A more careful look to these data, reveal that in health and welfare research, female PhD graduates by 2003 were approximately 50%. This indicates that women do as good as man at the real beginning of a scientific career, but they give up on the way. Under this light, the She Figures data are not surprising: like in many other field, also research requires tremendous determination not only to reach the top, but just to keep floating. To succeed among many, the rule ‘the strongest eat the weakest’ certainly apply in science as much as in many other area, like politics, business and economics.
Generally, career attitude is exquisitely manly. Women (most of them) have more delicate approaches to the working environment, encourage team work, and give much more credit to fairness and loyalty, characteristic that make them winner just to a certain point. Over that, you may have to show your mettle and rise your voice. Very loudly.
If I glanch at the senior women researchers I meet regularly, most of them have evolved ‘masculine-traits’ in their behaviors, the way they approach people and talk. This was probably necessary to survive and make it through this still male-domoinated field. A proof of concept? The Committee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology counts 17 members, of which only two are women.
There are no doubts that Science: it’s a girl thing is, in principle, a noble step towards a more balanced society, where women voice in research and other leading positions is not only missing, it’s needed. Unfortunately, the pitch of the EU campaign may leave someone disappointed. More than 2.000 people disliked this video on YouTube, almost 95% of the viewers.
The campaign already got its load of backfires. Liz Moyer from the Wall Street Journal blog The Juggle opens her commentary with “It seems like the beginning of a porn movie“. The HuffingtonPost wonder whether EU think that girl don’t join geeks because ‘well, just isn’t very sexy’.
From the colums of Forbes, Tim Worstall get really upset: “when the continent is falling apart there’s still money and time in which to be patronising, smug and sexist”.
Result? The video has been withdrawn from the official YouTube Channel of the campaign. Fortunately, the video still circulates, making someone else channel insanely clicked (like ‘alba502‘).
These critiques poorly give the EU initiative the right credit. Their website cover a list of interviews with successful women in science and in different field, giving the ‘right and ordinary’ example of what a women by the research bench looks like. Happy?
Let’s try to rescue a bit the situation. Ok, this video got thousands of dislike on YouTube, but got public attention, a great things by itself! (How often do you see an EU initiative for research extensively covered by media?). Second: making science sexy it’s not such a bad deal. Polish geeks name with an unusual approach certainly contributes to the never-ending problem of science communication. We must acknowledge that we are tremendously boring for most people. Maybe boring for those girls whom now glanced at the EU webpage of R&I. Still, I doubt that girls that would like that kind of video would be the same that attend regularly chemistry courses at college. But who knows.
FameLabber Alina Colan (Int Final 2012 – Romania) told me at Cheltenham Science Festival that on the stage she wanted to make clear that beautiful, well dressed and make-up women are as good as other in dealing with science. Alina is an undergrad in Material Science and Engineering at the University in Bucharest.
To conclude, a parallelism for ‘Science: it’s a girl thing‘ with another constantly debating campaign just came up to my mind: the gay right battle straggle also between the need to underline the homosexual identity (often playing with stereotypes) and the need to make gay people look like the rest of the society.
Both these two approaches try to fill social gaps, but with different methods. This ‘girl for science’ campaign may stress that women unique characteristics (not stereotypes) are ALSO welcome in the research world, where, in my opinion, the shortage of ideas and resources make this field extreamly suitable for radical changes and re-thingking, as long as it works.
Come as you are, but please join us and make science.