I never really got gender. There are a lot of things about society that I just don’t get, but defining people based on their genetics and physical traits is easily the biggest one. So needless to say, while issues of gender disparity and, indeed, chauvinism in science are very real – from a personal point of view, I still find them somewhat baffling. In light of certain recent events, now seems like a good time to say something about that.
The recent events in particular centre around the EU’s new campaign to try and address gender balance in science. Unfortunately, the way they went about it was… disappointing. At best. The promo video for “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” provoked a general reaction across the entirety of the science blogosphere of disdain and repulsion. Some notable responses were posted by Noisy Nicole of the Skepchicks, the wonderfully sardonic Dr Isis, Deep Sky Videos’ Meghan Gray, and Liz Else at New Scientist. The disappointing thing is that if you look past the offensive stereotypes in their “teaser” video (which, incidentally, has since been pulled from YouTube), the actual website has some good material. For instance, several videos of notable women in science, talking frankly about who they are, what they do, and why they love science. And if they’d used any of this material in their promo, the response may have been much much more positive!
The problem everyone has with that video is that it just takes a bunch of stereotypes and some shampoo advert “science” clips, mixes them together, and makes a glittery pink mess. Basically. Only one of the girls in the video is even shown to do anything remotely sciencey. The other two just giggle and make OMG faces. Is this really the way to inspire girls into science? Well… no. No, I don’t believe it is. And I don’t think many people do.
This is not going to be solved by “pinkifying” science. The problem is going to be solved by fixing a society that treats men and women like different species. The most ludicrous part is that many stereotypes are recent societal constructs. That the term “pinkifying” was even coined shows a scarily deep level of indoctrination about male/female stereotypes – and recent ones, at that. Unfortunately, from an early age, two children may be treated very differently based on their perceived gender – even when it’s literally the same child in different clothing. We’re essentially told that everything about us is defined by whatever genitalia we happened to be born with.
We’re taught that we’re only supposed to be interested in the things which our gender is interested in, and it’s oh so sacrosanctly forbidden to touch anything that your gender isn’t supposed to like. This sort of thing caused a twitstorm a couple of months ago when Karen Masters noted that science magazines were in a section marked “Men’s Interest”. The full absurdity is detailed at her blog, Beautiful Stars – together with the photograph, which seems to imply that movies, music and video games are also “for men”. The flipside is seen by the fact that sometimes things which are supposedly feminine are rebranded in a more masculine light. Put the words “for men” on it, and suddenly it’s ok to buy it. Probably the best example of this I’ve seen is a nail polish which is “for men”. The silly thing is that the hilariously named Alpha Nail(!) is almost definitely no different to any other nail polish out there✭.
Misogyny is still rife in science, sadly. It’s sometimes quite overt too – provoking much deserved vitriolic responses. As for inspiring anyone into science, the people who should be doing so seem to be notoriously clueless. That said, the number of women receiving degrees in science has recently been greater than the number of men, for the first time ever. That said, it doesn’t help to prevent shockingly sexist things that already occur, or for those happenings to be dismissed as being seen “through the gender lens“.
So what’s to be done? Well, an honest fact is that most of my most respected scientists – people whom I view as mentors and role models – just happen to be female. This includes people I know both online and off (and in a few cases, both). At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of young people on the internet who talk about their aspirations to become scientists. There is, as far as I’ve seen, a rather good gender balance in these people on the internet – on sites like tumblr, for instance. In fact, if anything, there sometimes seem to be more girls than boys who’re interested in it. So we probably don’t need to change any views of what science is. The views of who does science are easily changed by showcasing the hugely varied kinds of people who become scientists and erasing stereotypes of men in lab coats. Mostly, we, right here on science blogs and social media, just need to keep inspiring and enthusing people about how amazing the universe is and the way science helps us see the world.
And then, just maybe, instead of trying to make science into “a girl thing”, we should just start reassuring girls that it isn’t a boy thing instead. Stop paying attention to gender and just start encouraging kids that they can be scientists if they want to, whether they happen to be boys, girls, or anything else. Stop telling anyone that it’s “too difficult” for them.
Because science is awesome. And it’s for everyone.
EDIT– It’s worth adding that the EU commission has paid good attention to responses from the science community and is doing the right thing. Good for them.
And for the record, sure, so I have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Male privilege? I didn’t ask for it and I certainly don’t want it.
Comic panel via Questionable Content. Images stolen from Skepchick, Dr Isis and Astropixie – sorry, I hope you don’t mind. If any of you’d rather not have your picture here, just drop me a comment, ok?
✭ Incidentally, I rather like nail polish…