As three women catwalk towards the camera in stilettos, a man in a white lab-coat peers up from his microscope to observe them. He puts on spectacles to enhance his vision of the heels, sunglasses, and tightly-fitted dresses they don. As the beat of the tune drops, images of pink lipstick, blusher and perfectly manicured nails are interspersed with those of beakers, test tubes (foaming with pastel-coloured liquid), and fuchsia and white molecular structures.
The women consistently reappear, treading the seemingly non-existent line between fashion diva and scientist, finally swapping their Ray-Bans for safety goggles to strike a pose for the video’s tagline – ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’. Unfortunately not a spoof or a (un)cleverly designed advertisement for a beauty product, this video was released last month by the European Commission – along with an accompanying website and campaign of the same name – to address the ‘under-representation’ of women in scientific fields, and ‘promote gender equality and gender dimension in research’. While the campaign’s stated aims clearly reflect the stark need for an intervention on this issue, its medium is not only counter-productive, but actively harmful, to its message.
Though the website makes an attempt to profile women scientists, its layout distinctly resembles a commercial women’s magazine, including a quiz to ‘find your inner researcher’ and numerous pink hearts. On both website and video, the letter ‘i’ of the word ‘science’ has been substituted for a lipstick tube. This explicit infantilisation and sexualisation of women scientists by the European Commission has (rightly) shocked many, and one Facebook user wryly comments below a video clip of one of the profiled scientists, ‘She looks like a woman, not a girl’.
Due to a barrage of complaints and criticisms – from both within and outside the scientific community – the video was removed 5 days after its release under the premise that it was not designed to offend, but simply ‘attract the attention of teenage girls who might not normally think of science as something for them’. However, the underlying assumption that what is ‘for’ teenage girls is coated in lipstick and sealed through the pervasive culture of the beauty industry remains unquestioned and unapologised for. While ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ can be seen as reflective of the attitude towards women and science within Europe – and an ironic comment on the patronising sexism into which the EU is choosing to invest its money during times of severe austerity measures – the implications of the campaign are globally resonant: actual experiences of women across the globe working in fields of science and technology paint a not-so-pretty-in-pink picture.
Gender-based prejudices actively discourage women from entering theoretical or ‘pure’ sciences, relegating them to biological sciences which are considered to be closer to nature and therefore to women’s life-experiences. In India, scientific institutions routinely turn down best-practice suggestions for gender-equality, and in turn, the State often turns down key proposals that would enable more women to successfully work within the field – including the 2008 proposal for flexible working hours for women with children under the ages of three. Discussing the barriers preventing girls or young women from entering the field, Dr Gita Chadha, a Mumbai-based sociologist, who has pioneered feminist critiques of science in India and is currently editing a book on gender and science, says, “The question of entry is complex. Girls and women are not encouraged to do science from an early age. Moreover, the way textbooks are written and science is taught in classrooms reinforces meanings and messages that only men can be scientists.”
Furthermore, research carried out in different parts of the world highlights the preferential treatment of men’s scientific research if the gender of the author is known to the paper’s reviewers, and the many glass ceilings and structural barriers that consistently prevent women scientists from rising in their fields of work.
In this global context of gender inequality in the sciences, there has been much criticism levied at the campaign. One female scientist astutely comments as part of a discussion thread on the campaign’s Facebook group: “There are these Barbie doll-like girls who cannot be considered serious by anyone. Having completed secondary school, university education, a PhD and almost 4 years of Post Doctorate experience in science…certainly I did not get to where I am now by being what you imply in your video. As a woman in science you face the situation again and again [where] you are not considered a serious collaborator or competitor simply because you have the ‘wrong’ gender – and because a number of men like to see women exactly the way you present them.”
This representation of women scientists through the lens of prejudice which they have to contend with on a daily basis is something Dr. Chadha reflects on, “It trivialises both science and women’s choices to participate in science. Most importantly, it reinforces stereotypes associated with women. In an effort to replace the ‘serious, unattractive woman: bespectacled et al’ kind of mainstream representation of women scientists, the video reverses back into other stereotypes which women and feminists seek to resist.” As campaigns across the globe work towards the much-needed objectives that ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ sought to address, they must be careful not to fall into the trap of essentialising the women who their initiatives seek to target.
A good starting point would perhaps be to begin from the premise that role models for young women do not by nature need to parallel the debilitating and pervasive influences of the beauty industry. By recognising this we can empower all young women with the tools necessary to enter into and advance within any heavily-male dominated field – armed with the confidence of knowledge and skills, not lipstick and mascara.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Mascara Under The Microscope’ in the print and online editions of The Hindu on 2 July 2012.