There is a worldwide shortage of women in science, with women only holding 12.8% of STEM careers. The problem begins at A-level where, in 2014, females were less represented than males in every STEM subject except biology. The cause of this disproportion is not lack of ability. In the same year, females proportionally out performed males in all STEM subjects at A-level, yet encouraging females to pursue the sciences at degree and career level is an ongoing battle. In 2014 only 18% of computer science undergraduates, 19% of physics and engineering undergraduates and 43% of mathematics undergraduates were female. So, surely any attempt to attract females into the sciences should be applauded? The truth is, campaigns that focus on the issue of appearance are doing more harm than good.
The “Pretty Curious” campaign, launched by EDF to challenge appearance stereotypes in female scientists is one of these. Firstly, the name. ‘Pretty Curious’ is more appropriate as a Britney Spears perfume than a campaign for getting girls into science. Secondly, the campaign’s four role models, two of whom are in the fashion and makeup industry, add to the sexist stereotype that most girls want to be pretty and are interested in pretty things. EDF stated that they ‘knew the name would attract attention and chose it to raise awareness of the campaign’. However, by attracting attention to the stereotype they do more to reinforce it than resolve it.
This event is not isolated. In 2012 the European commission produced a video to attract girls into the sciences via the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ campaign. The video featured no scientific content whatsoever and instead focused on three leggy models giggling with heels, sunglasses and lipstick, shown in between generic shots of smoking beakers labelled ‘Hydrogen’ and handsome male lab assistants. The video was later branded as offensive and removed from the campaign. In Japan, the “Miss Rikei (Science)” contest sparked outrage as competing female researchers were judged on their looks in comparison to their scientific ability. The aim was to combat female stereotypes in science and create role models for young women.
As well as being fundamentally offensive, these campaigns are also ineffective. The University of Michigan conducted a study, which showed girls, who had not previously considered a career in STEM were discouraged by both “beauty focused” and “geeky” role models as they couldn’t relate to either stereotype. A role model should broaden examples of who can succeed. These campaigns simply replace one stereotypical image with another and create ideals that seem impossible for young, impressionable girls to live up to.
Scientific achievement should be at the forefront of a science campaign, not appearance. STEM jobs do not need to appear more feminine and a scientific role model’s style should never be more important than their work. Efforts should be focused on normalising the idea of girls in science from an early age and campaigns should focus on recent inspirational female scientists such as Dr Joanne Liu, Emmanuelle Charpentier or Jennifer Doudna.