'Girl Thing' Science Campaign Video Deemed Patronizing, Insulting
June 24, 2012

‘Girl Thing’ Science Campaign Video Deemed Patronizing, Insulting

A video launched last week by the European Commission as part of a campaign to encouraging young women to explore careers in scientific research fields was made inaccessible to the public after being roundly criticized in the media as patronizing, offensive, and insulting.

The "Science: it's a girl thing!" campaign, officially announced by the Commission in a June 21 press release, revealed that an extra one million research workers were needed to meet their goal of increasing research and development spending to 3% of the European Union's gross domestic product by 2020.

"Some businesses already complain about a lack of researchers and skilled technical workers," they said. "There is a growing pool of female talent in Europe from which research and innovation should benefit. There are many factors at work explaining the lack of women in research in general and in some sectors in particular. Some are linked to the practices of research institutions and others to persistent stereotypes which affect the culture and image of science. The campaign intends to address these stereotypes."

According to a blog posted by Mark Peplow of Nature News, the first phase of the campaign, which launched Thursday in Brussels, included a website and a Facebook page featuring profiles of young female scientists, information about competitions and events, and a teaser video.

That teaser video, which focused on "a trio of women sashaying around and striking catwalk poses, choppily cut with those reassuring staples of science -- you know, safety glasses, lab coats, glassware “¦ erm, sunglasses, high heels, lipstick," wound up drawing "scathing criticisms" against it throughout the World Wide Web, Peplow wrote. He then cited commentary from Wired, New Statesman and even Twitter as evidence of some of the backlash against the video.

Likewise, Telegraph Science Correspondent Nick Collins said that the video's "pink background, lipstick-style logo and techno music soundtrack appeared to have missed the mark with viewers who branded it as 'offensive' and 'insulting' “¦ Web users viewing the minute-long video online were so shocked by its content that an EC spokesman was forced to deny it was a joke, insisting that the commission 'doesn't really do irony'."

"While the campaign's other films had drawn praise for featuring interesting and intelligent women discussing their careers in scientific research, the video took a different approach featuring three models giggling and blowing kisses against a bright neon backdrop," Collins added, pointing out that as of his press time, 51 people had "liked" the video and nearly 1,800 had "disliked" it, saying that "it contained no scientific content whatsoever, save for a handful of images of beakers, test tubes and formulas interspersed with pictures of lipstick and nail varnish."

MSNBC.com's Alan Boyle reported that the original video had been taken down by the European Commission as of 5:45pm Eastern Time on Friday, and had been replaced by a different video on the campaign's website. Furthermore, in a Twitter update, Boyle said that the group's communication's department said, "OK, scientists, we've heard you and we want to keep hearing you. Help us build a list of #realwomeninscience: https://t.co/A2LX24ym."

"That shortened Web address points to a list of Twitter accounts for female scientists," he reported. "More than 100 women are on the list so far, and it's growing by the minute. Now, that's a good thing."

Despite what appears to have been an ill-advised teaser video, the "Science: it's a girl thing!" campaign is hoping to steer teenage girls into the fields of science and technology. According to the European Commission media advisor, both boys and girls have about the same interest in and aptitude for these fields at the age of 15, but in the years that follow, a "large number of girls drop out of science, engineering and technology to pursue other subjects."

That trend is what the campaign is hoping to reverse.

"Female graduates are severely under-represented in the areas of engineering, manufacturing and construction, with women making up just 25.5% of graduates in these fields. Women are also under-represented in the areas of science, mathematics and computing, where they constitute 40.2 % of all graduates," the Commission said. "Furthermore, EU-wide, women make up only about 32% of career researchers. Most countries acknowledge that this is a problem, not only now but for the future of research. With businesses in many countries already reporting shortages of skilled workers, Europe cannot afford to waste any of its young talent."