Maybe It’s a… Female Thing.

One of the best distillations with the problems facing people trying to bring woman into technical fields.

from SMBC

I live in a bit of a cave while I’m writing my dissertation, and haven’t been listening to my radio (almost permanently tuned to NPR) as often as I should, so I missed this segment on The World last week.  But the internet serves me well, and I managed to find the video myself.  I wish the term “pinkwashing” wasn’t already taken because, seriously, the pink-i-fication of STEM fields is getting ridiculous.

First of all, it’s pretty obvious to most people that first view this video that it is ridiculous.  That, in and of itself, should have caused its makers to step back and think “Hmmm, maybe making something blatantly silly isn’t the best way to prompt serious consideration of the problems of gender diversity in the sciences.”  Apart from that, there is the obvious traditional-feminist angle: it objectifies women by associating them with traditionally-gendered things like lipstick, pink, and high heels.  Even making the man take off his glasses and gawk at them promotes objectification.

But that’s not why it bothers me.  It is offensive to everyone.  Any woman should be offended that this is what the European Commission thinks it takes to get females interested in science.  Any man should be offended that the reaction of the sole male in the video is to stop working and gawk, as though men should be so floored by women in science that they can’t do anything.  Neither of these things bode well for the future of women in science.  First of all, if men are really going to be so distracted by females in the lab, that’s a problem.  That means we’ll have to have women’s labs and men’s labs.  Not really feasible, especially since it’s just a fact of life that the majority of established scientists are men and women need to be able to work with them if they want to progress in the field.  Second, if this kind of ad really does draw some girls into science, they are going to be sorely disappointed that there isn’t much pink, you probably don’t want to bring lipstick out in the lab (it gets on optics, or could get contaminated by chemicals), and those peep-toe stilettos will probably only bring stares from the safety officer before he cites you for inappropriate footwear.

And I say this as a woman who tries to embrace my femininity.  I dress nicely as often as I feel like, and even wore high heels in the lab regularly (closed toed).  I didn’t do this to attract a man, or even to provide a feminine role model to other females.  I did it because I liked feeling good about how I looked.  But the fact is, the people (the man included) in this video are not what the majority of scientists look like.  This also decreases the effectiveness of the video because no one is really going to identify with someone who’s obviously so far into the 1% of socially-desired physical attributes.  I mean, look at the Dove Real Women campaign — even beauty companies realize that using models does not necessarily convince consumers to buy your message.  People don’t want to know that Barbie can do science; they want to know that THEY can do science.

Also, do you want to know who might actually have fantasies of hot women doing science?  Men.  The idea of putting a hot woman in the lab is best exemplified by the controversial Edmund Optics “Red Hot Optics” campaign, which was obviously intended as a way to market optics to men they same way sports cars or repellent body spray might be marketed to men.  Unfortunately for Edmund Optics, scientists are smart and saw through this as the sexist drivel that it was.  They received a lot of backlash from all sides in the scientific community.  Too bad the European Commission didn’t know about this.  Ultimately, they produced a piece of [advertising] that would, at best, appeal to a narrow demographic of men who were too busy staring at leggy women in heels to consider the message of the piece, intended or otherwise.

The bottom line of closing the gender inequality gap in STEM fields comes down to, ultimately, de-gendering science.  Along the way, yes, it might make women feel better to have more female role models to whom to turn when facing a problem in the lab.  And we definitely need to address issues that specifically cause women problems in the research world (specifically, the disproportionate burden of starting a family on the time and energy a woman has available to otherwise pursue a research career).  But, ultimately, we need to teach young women that they can work with males, not because they have “girl power,” but because there isn’t a fundamental difference between a female with an inclination towards a technical field and a male with the same inclination.  We want to get to the point where, when asked, “How many women are in your program?,” we can honestly answer, “Hang on a second, I don’t really think about it that often.”

[yes, theatre nerds, the title is a reference to RENT]