Do science girls have an image problem?

Hot young girls in high heels. Powdered make-up exploding across bubbling and steamy apparatus. Equations written in lipstick. Sounds like a normal day in the lab for most women scientists. Except it isn’t. The scenes are, of course, snippets from the roundly and soundly derided ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video released to shock and awe–the bad kind–in 2012.

Born of a well-meaning but inherently flawed campaign from the European Commission, it has been criticised and parodied to the point that further condemnation for reinforcing stereotypes would be like pulling a girl’s hair and stealing her chocolate. Marie Curie’s appearance may arguably not be as attractive as a catwalk models, but if you could find visual props to picture a beautiful mind, she would be a shining star.

To be fair to the EC, it’s not hard to see why they thought they had to do something: a She Figures 2012 report points out that the share of women graduating at PhD level now stands at 46%, but women account for only 33% of researchers in the EU. And while 59% of EU graduate students in 2010 were female, only 20% of EU senior academicians were women.

Is the image of women scientists to blame for the lack of popularity of science studies? It is clear the problems begin before university and academia. The UK’s Institute of Physics has found that for the last two decades in the UK only 20% of physics students past age 16 have been girls, despite about equal success for boys and girls in physics and science exams leading to that point.

How much could changing the image of female scientists do to solve the two problems that persist? Namely, boosting girls’ involvement in science from an early age. And removing the barriers to top positions for female scientists when they get there.

A classic remedy to anyone with an image problem would be to try and alter that image through advertising campaigns. But do these get-girls-to-do-science campaigns really work? “I don’t know,” says Claudine Hermann, Vice President of the European Platform for Women Scientists who in 1992 was the first woman to be appointed as a professor at military engineering school École Polytechnique, in Paris, France.

The trouble is that such campaign often fails to convince. Hermann has spent the past 20 years immersed in the challenge and says there have been plenty of campaigns to convince girls—and boys—to go into science “But they have not been very efficient,” she says, “You cannot know what had happened if campaign had not existed.” Sounds like the perfect area to test a policy change through a randomised trial. Others concur that advertising has obvious limitations. “I don’t think one video will make any difference,” says sociologist Lousie Archer from King’s College London, who, like most, is not a great fan of the ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ video. But she says she could see what they were trying to do.

Rather, the image problem may just be the tip of the iceberg, where deeply engrained cultural and social perceptions are slow to evolve. “Our research shows the masculine image of science is an issue and ‘girly’ girls are much less likely to aspire to science careers than ‘non-girly’ girls, even though they both like science at school,” she explains. This suggests that young girls displaying an interest for science may fear that they will be regarded as uncool by boys.  “Analysis shows single sex schools are most effective way of getting girls to study physics A level,” notes Archer. “Our surveys of over 9000 primary and 5600 secondary pupils show that the ‘brainy’ image of science is also a key part of the problem and can be particularly off putting for girls,” says Archer. “And social class is as much an issue as gender.”

Confirmation of the overwhelming impact of culture and social influences can be found in Eastern Europe, after the Second World War. The communist ideology dictated equal ability and opportunity between the sexes as society forged on as one powered by engineering and science. Indeed, the EU expert group Enwise (Enlarge Women in Science to East) published a reportconcluding that the availability of childcare facilities and state support for working mothers led to the a significant proportion of well qualified women in high profile roles, particularly in science.

Unfortunately, as the Communist Bloc unravelled so did funding, infrastructure and many of the benefits, although still leaving a higher proportion of women researchers in science than in the West today. This was particularly true in countries with smaller populations, who face challenges such as being frozen out of more competitive, high-cost research programmes. As Hermann notes, “it’s complex.” A Czech report from 2008, provides an update of the recent status of women in science in the Czech republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The issue is not just about stereotypes, however, and could also be linked to a widespread lack of knowledge of the high transferability of science qualifications. “Most young people don’t realise science qualifications are useful for a wide range of jobs both in and out of science,” says Archer.

Perhaps, the lack of role model is also to blame. Hermann also says that under-representation of women scientists in the media is also a problem. From TV appearances to museum exhibits, they often fail to recognise the role women play in science.

On the positive side, women already in science today stand a better chance to climb the career ladder than before. Hermann cites programmes in Switzerland and Ireland that led to more women professors. “If there is a state policy and real funds things can change,” she says. “But if you just speak there will be very slow evolution. You need political will.”

And for political action you need increased awareness that there is a problem, which has gained much more prominence according to physicist Athene Donald from the University of Cambridge, UK. She cites the Athena Swan Charter for women in science, applied for and awarded to universities, as an action that “has certainly raised everyone’s awareness and also the stakes.” A 2009 winner of The L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science and a noted blogger on the topic, Donald says actions are needed too.  “This isn’t about generational change. This action will be more important at later career stages, university and beyond.” Actions that might work right now include not writing ‘Science: It’s a girl thing’ in lipstick on the EC revamped website.

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