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Science: It’s a sexist thing #sciencegirlthing

Science: It’s a sexist thing #sciencegirlthing


It was the marketing fail heard round the world, and I got a call this morning at my office asking me what the problem was.

Sheryl Nadler, from Yahoo!‘s Shine On blog, found me on a Google search for Canadian social marketers as she researched a post on the European Union’s roundly-bashed video “Science: It’s a Girl Thing”.

Sheryl writes, “The video in question, which depicts images of three young women in shirt skirts and stilettos being gawked at by a lab coat-donning young man, transposed with images of makeup powders and lipstick, was meant to appeal to girls between the ages of 13 and 17…”

And then came my part.

But their strategy was flawed, says Tom Megginson, creative director at Acart Communications in Ottawa. He points out that the EU’s objective — to lure girls into the field of science — is great, but he feels they made the wrong choice in choosing to sexualize science and to play with harmful, cultural stereotypes rather than just play up the fact that science is cool.

“We would have shot that down — that never would have been seen by the client,” says Megginson, who has worked on many government campaigns. “Governments are held to a higher standard by society, so government advertising should never be part of the problem, it should be part of the solution.”

He says he might have designed a campaign that focused on women who have enjoyed success in the science world, as well as the many interesting things science can do.

“Science is really fascinating and it is what our world is all about,” he says. “So attracting more girls into science isn’t about saying come into the field because it’s about being sexy and lipstick and shaking your booty. Get into science because you can change the world. You can have a part in actually changing the very fabric of our existence.”

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And while he acknowledges that wearing makeup and sparkly clothing doesn’t — or shouldn’t — preclude a girl from pursuing any subject, he doesn’t feel it should be the focus off this particular campaign.

“If a girl wants to dress up and wear makeup , that’s totally cool,” he says. “But that’s up to her. And using the sexualisation of girls and their insecurities about their appearance, is not the kind of Machiavellian advertising strategy I would support.”

Though the campaign is not a complete loss, he says. The goal itself is good and the fact that the video went viral means many people are now having a conversation around the need to “increase the ratio of women scientists, as well as the superficial and highly sexualized female stereotypes that are a barrier to that goal.”

I always prefer to do interviews by e-mail, since talking off the top of my head doesn’t lead to the most cromulent grammar. But it was nice to have another blogger quoting me, for a change.

There was one interesting angle to this that I had not anticipated, however. A social media admin at one of the feminist Facebook pages I follow called me on basking in my white male privilege, rather than passing the opportunity to comment on to one of the many women in social marketing. My answer, that I did not want to squander an opportunity to share my own professional opinion and gain some positive PR for my agency, was not well received.

I agree that the blogger could have taken the time to get more female voices for the post (besides her own, of course). But I don’t regret giving my 2¢ on a topic (social marketing strategy) and an issue (sexuality in media) that I really care about.

But for balance, here’s Gwen Sharp from Sociological Images:

The video has been roundly criticized (check out the Twitter feed for #sciencegirlthing), both for presenting a stereotyped image of girls and for misrepresenting the scientific workplace (one female scientist Tweeted wondering what will happen to any girls possibly drawn in by this campaign when they learn that in many labs, open-toed heels violate safety codes).

About two years ago, I posted a cartoon that I think is worth reposting here (via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal):


I suspect the makers of the video believe they are doing that first thing — trying to push back against the idea that science is unfeminine. Indeed, the video is part of the larger Science: It’s a Girl Thing! campaign, and the website also contains 12 profiles of female European scientists, which provide more realistic depictions of women working in a range of scientific fields. But many viewers, including a lot of scientists (both women and men), see it as the second thing — another example of what I described in my original post of the cartoon as “superficial attempts to overcome the often structural constraints that keep women out of masculinized arenas of social life.”

European Union

I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more