My twitter feed exploded this morning in response to a new European Commission Campaign called “Science: it’s a girl thing“. Specifically the ‘teaser’ video (below). In summary, the tweeple are not impressed.
My guess is that the video was put together by people who don’t actually know anything about science (open toed shoes in a lab? Tsk!) Or women. So perhaps we should pity them in their ignorance, though presumably they were paid enough that they could have done a little research first. Failure to do so has resulted in what Olivia Solon aptly describes as “the bastard offspring of a Barry M ad and the results of searching for “science” in a stock image library”
I can only speak for myself here, but my journey into science was not tinged with any perceptible gender angle. My father worked with numbers for a living, taught me to read before I started school and drilled the times tables into me far better than my teachers did. My mother was the first in her family to go to university, and studied geology. The fact that my parents let me play with lego rather than foisting Barbie dolls on me may have helped me avoid the pinkified childhood that marketers are ever more keen to push.
But there was never any pressure down any particular career path. I’ve never been steered in any one direction, but nor have I been dissuaded from anything. Nobody’s ever told me that I couldn’t be scientist, or anything else for that matter. Admittedly I’ve never openly proposed career plans that are clearly beyond me – a single term of early Saturday morning athletics training was enough to nip the silent ‘100m sprinter’ aspiration in the bud. I think, for me, the liberating notion was that if I had the ability to do something and had the right interest and commitment, that it was possible. Nobody’s ever tried to tell me otherwise
<Cringeworthy boast alert> The fact is that, at school at least, I was good enough all round that I could have pursued any of my GCSE subjects to A level, and a fair number of them to undergraduate studies.</cringeworthy boast alert> So why science and maths? A large part is due to excellent and enthusiastic teachers coming along at the right time. Primary school left me with a loathing for maths, though fortunately the parental foundations meant at least I didn’t get left behind. And my interest in science up to my mid teens was mostly confined to natural history and a bit of astronomy. It wasn’t really until I started GCSEs that I ever considered that STEM might provide me with a career, and that realisation came in part from the encouragement of my teachers.
Though the foundations laid in the classroom are essential, it’s often the extended activities that help a latent interest to be recognised and flourish. We entered the UK Junior Maths Challenge. A science teacher teamed up with the drama department to take us to a science themed play. The same teacher arranged work experience for myself and others via his connections with the Natural History Museum. A conversation with the deputy head about my career interests lead to me spending a week work-shadowing her husband in a clinical genetics lab. Had the ‘I’m a scientist‘ scheme been around in my day, I’m sure I would have found it a similarly engaging.
What these experiences have in common is that none of them seemed to come about specifically because I was a girl. Or in spite of that. The encouragement and opportunities that came my way were because those older and wiser than me recognised I had an aptitude for and interest in science and maths, and were generous enough to nurture that. Nobody tried to appeal to my feminine side to entice me – that would probably have backfired as I didn’t identify as particularly girly (which is not to say I was a tomboy either – femaleness is not dichotomous, nor are all males either butch or camp). The above opportunities were equally accessible to the boys
If we want to encourage young people into science, and cultivate an interest in science in those who don’t want to become scientists (which is also important), I see little benefit in appealing along gender lines, especially ones which are so painfully stereotypical. Instead, highlighting the role of scientific discovery and invention in the everyday can be the hook that gets people in. Those every day things do not have to be portrayed as gendered – do girls not use smartphones? Do boys not need healthcare? To give credit where it’s due, the ‘Science: it’s a girl thing’ campaign does actually recognise that highlighting real world applications, and future areas of need can pique the interest, though unfortunately any of the good aspects of the campaign will be overshadowed by massively misjudged launch.
At the end of the day, science is a people thing. It’s there for anyone who’s interested. The sooner we stop trying to sell it as being one single thing, with one set of appeals, the sooner we make it accessible to all.