Science: its a stereotype thing

Friday, 22nd June 2012 at 13:06 UTC 7 comments

The current gender-outrage doing the rounds right now is brought to you by those wonderful chaps at the EU who are trying to ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ of a lack of women in science. For those who haven’t already, spend a minute watching this advert and observe (oh, that’s a sciencey word, isn’t it?) all that is cringeworthy about the latest attempt.

Amongst the criticisms thus far, the infantilisation one has come up a lot. Its definitely a problem within our society, but I can kind of see what they were probably thinking – girls (as in, under 16 females) are dropping science subjects faster than Virgin Broadband are dropping connections. By the start of secondary school, girls are already inculturated with the message that the school science labs are the domain of male students, where they will be second class citizens. My school had at least one male science teacher who talked down to the girls and with the boys, just to make sure the message was heeded.

Science needs to be a female child’s thing as much as it needs to be a female adult’s thing, and a male adults thing. Our culture has severely weird issues when it comes to sex and infantilisation, but we also live in a world where we’ve kind of abolished growing up as the concept it was half a century ago, even if the Tories want to reinforce it at all costs. Society has traditionally seen marriage and child-bearing as the signs of adulthood, for instance.

There’s also a self-definition thing here. If someone tells me not to use a term to describe them, I won’t. The fact is, I’m happy to be called a boy and I know females who define as girls – its their right as much as anyone else. (Please don’t call me a bloke, it has bad mental connections in my head. Man is just fine).

Of course, on one level, you could ask ‘what’s the problem’. Devil’s advocate bit here: Is the issue that women who want to get into science can’t (in which case, what the heck is this 53seconds of marketing going to do) or that women, of their own free will, are turning their back on careers in science? Do we still believe the myth that science is automatically a force for good in the world? Or are we just obsessed with gender counts and making people feel bad for skewing the statistics away from 50/50? And what of this binary thing? Hasn’t science found numerous holes in that?

I suppose if we’re serious about trying to get more women people in to science careers, we need to look at the women in science already. Science, for reasons that should be obvious, doesn’t really appeal to unintelligent women people. Whilst I’m sure plenty of women people with science careers turn to dumbed down mass-market entertainment for their rest and relaxation, saying ‘science is mainstream’ is kind of both lying and failing to convey the possibilities. Its not mainstream – unless you’ve confused the list of things the Mail says will give you and cure you of cancer with science. Mainstream is largely a lie created to replace ‘culturally significant’ in a world where culture is designed and pre-packaged by the media and entertainment industries. Its basically a lie to say it even exists outside of marketing theories.

What we need to be conveying is a message that our young people can do better than what is projected as mainstream, not that they should fulfil that concept. The coding around science (safety specks, microscopes, lab coats) is as culturally strong and realistically flimsy as Barbie’s use of pinkness for ‘girly’. Surely the message should be “its OK for women to aspire to be geeky instead of obsessing over being sexy”.


Entry filed under: Culture, Europe, Gender, Language, Marketing, Media, Science.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ceri  |  Friday, 22nd June 2012 at 15:06 UTC

    What tends to happen in life sciences is that lots of women start out on science careers from undergrad through PhD, then get put off by post-docs, which are lots of very short, very geographically mobile temporary contracts – not what you need for a stable lifestyle and maybe a young family, and the temp contracts are bad for maternity leave.

    It is also very difficult to work part-time or take time off, as you have to stay ‘current’ with your field – specialist funding is available for some return to work posts, but not many.

    Of course, this relates to all sorts of wider social issues about childcare, maternity leave, and so on…

  • 2. Gareth Franks-Pedrick  |  Saturday, 23rd June 2012 at 8:48 UTC

    Not sure I get you on the infantilisation thing. I would imagine that the time that you make the decision whether or not to study the sciences is when you are young. I think once you’ve got your BA in Eng Lit or Art History (both very worthy subjects) it’s going to be tough making your way into the lab. The other videos on the Sciencegirlthing channel appear to be aimed at young people (probably 12-15 sort of age)

    The issue with the Ad was surely the sexualisation and focus on “girly” things, especially cosmetics, and the fake girly giggles. It was a patronising bunch of wank.

    Also, I will add that the video has now been removed from the Sciencegirlthing channel. The other videos are still up and seem quite reasonable (I’ve only watched a couple) they do still have the stick of lipstick as the I in science though.

    Also, to respond to a specific point, I would say that science IS overall a force for good. Like anything, people can do bad things with it, (Ask J R Oppenheimer) but work on genetics saved probably millions of people from famine. Knowledge is a good thing. The ability to use the scienctific method to understand an analyse something, anything, is a good thing.

    • 3. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 24th June 2012 at 11:13 UTC

      We can have the Optimism debate elsewhere – I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about it for a while, though I wrote something with a title like “Faith in Science” ages ago.
      The infantilisation line of argument came up in this post: – and whilst its a good thing to address how women are labelled as girls and men as men, I entirely agree, the whole campaign really needs to target 12-15 year old females (i.e. teenage girls) if its to win on its own terms. I suppose the question is: shouldn’t we be encouraging teenage girls to see their future as women scientists, studying stuff other than cosmetics, rather than girls with pink fluffy science goggles.

  • 4. Daniel T  |  Saturday, 23rd June 2012 at 11:06 UTC

    Graham, don’t you think it’s time we tried to actually resolve the contradictions that are revealed in the kind of discourse you have written here and in the kind of reply that Ceri has made? Namely, between feminist theory/discourse and queer theory/discourse? They are completely contradictory, and not in a good way. People just seem to be ignoring this, both the logical difficulties and the arguments.

    Daniel from Bradford days

    • 5. Graham Martin  |  Sunday, 24th June 2012 at 11:18 UTC

      Bit of a tangent, but I know the theoretical debate you’re referring to, and no, I don’t think we can resolve it, because both are tools for understanding oppression, and both are necessary for understanding the counter-oppression created in the name of each other, i.e. the case of the Radfem debate/flamewars ongoing.
      Perhaps you could be more specific about where I’m contradicting myself here? Are you saying that Ceri and I are writing contradictory messages, or that I’m writing both sides of a contradiction into my article?

      • 6. Daniel T  |  Saturday, 21st July 2012 at 12:31 UTC

        You are not really contradicting yourself in the article, but I think contradiction is implicit, as it is in a huge amount of current discourse, especially – I have found – verbal. The contradiction being that people are happy to use or at least tolerate (not openly contradict) discourse which highlights problems that people women experience because of their sex – such as ceri’s point – while at the same time – or rather, a different but relevant time, such as in the same conversation, or later in the day or week – strongly denounce discourse which expresses any kind of gender binary. The problem being, of course, that if individuals are experiencing general problems or benefits because of their sex, then a gender binary *of some description* is in effect.

        Are you aware of attempts to solve these issues? What is your own opinion? While I am appreciative that the nature of things often leads to a ‘natural’ contradiction, my concern is that this particular problem is being used in certain discursive power games.

        It is good to see you regularly writing man.

  • 7. Greg  |  Monday, 25th June 2012 at 12:50 UTC

    What Ceri says about the insecurity of postdoc positions is true, but it’s hardly unique to women – it’s currently doing a good job of putting me off too! As for taking time out to have children (and remember that women aren’t the only ones who do or can sacrifice their careers to do this), the issue is one of permeability. Yes you’ve got to stay current in your field but on top of that, physicist friends say that you need to lock yourself into academia and never leave for whatever reason or else you’ll never get back in – whereas in engineering it’s perfectly possible to work in industry before re-starting an academic career.

    Believe me, I’d love to have a more balanced lab – it would be far more fun – but I don’t believe equality of opportunity will lead to 50% balance. Like it or not, men and women are different; all through school, I enjoyed physics while I found english lessons a bit boring and biology somewhere in between. Funnily enough, the girls I knew tended on the whole to be the other way round! That’s not to deny that anyone, male or female, can be interested in or good at anything they like, but men and women are different types of people with different interests and from the age of six I could have told you there would be more men than women in science, just from observing what interested my classmates.


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