Scitech | Science: Why does it have to be “A Girl Thing”?

Gendered advertising is not the solution

This summer, a video went viral on YouTube – no surprise there – but this particular video touched on a rather heated topic: that of women in science. The European Commission’s “Science: It’s A Girl Thing” campaign, designed with the admirable goal of encouraging more young women to pursue careers in science, was launched in perhaps the most offensive, demeaning way imaginable. The campaign’s debut video delivers a frenzy of techno music, pink everything, lipstick, giggling, skinny models, short skirts, sky-high heels, makeup, sexy poses, hugging, some beakers, words like “hydrogen” because oh-my-god-hydrogen-like-totally-cool, and the list goes on. Then, at the end, the words, “Science: It’s a girl thing!” are splashed across the screen. Almost immediately, the people of the internet, especially female scientists, took to the comments and ripped into the video, denouncing it as offensive, demeaning, and insulting, not only to women in science, but to women in general.

In many places, North America included, women are underrepresented in the sciences. It makes sense to develop campaigns aimed at young women to show them that science is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s, and that no one can tell them otherwise. It’s a passion, just the same as fashion or makeup is. But is the real issue that science is not spoken “in [women’s] language,” as Michael Jennings, European Commission spokesman for science, feels is necessary, or is it that women cannot seem to be taken seriously by their male counterparts due to a greater societal problem? Beyond the offensive nature of the suggestion that women need a tailor-made language in order to find something interesting, the responses to the video are proof enough that the latter is the real issue.

It does not make sense to promote science as a “girl thing.” Science is an everyone thing, an anyone thing. Thus, a good promotional campaign of the sciences would be better off trying to get to the root of the problem – that society at large does not fully acknowledge women and men as equal, especially when it comes to the workplace – rather than further differentiating men and women by specifically targeting young women. It should address all people, to bring awareness to the problem that must be fixed from within.

So, where does McGill stand in this issue of women taking an equal place with men in the sciences? I interviewed a few of our own women in science, along with Professor Martin Grant, Dean of Science, to get an idea of McGill’s scientific situation.

Chelsea Gilliam, a student in Chemistry and Nursing, said, “[I’ve personally experienced] a very equal atmosphere within the science world.” Jacqueline Riddle, another student in Chemistry, agreed: “I don’t think the science faculty at McGill is a mostly male environment. […]Obviously there are departments that are male-dominated, but there are also departments that are female-dominated.”

The statistics given to me by Dean Grant are evidence of this: about 60 per cent of the 4,000 undergraduate science students are women, and more than one third of professors hired since June 2005, when he became Dean, have been women. It is a proud number for Dean Grant, but he does not wish to pat anyone on the back for it, himself included. “I want people to keep working on it,” he stated. “It requires constant vigilance.” Considering that all six of the female professors in the Physics department have been hired in the past ten years, it is clear that this is an upward trend.

Melanie Lyman-Abramovitch, a Computer Science student with minors in both Physics and Math, disagreed. “I actually feel pretty strongly about this kind of thing,” she asserted. “I’m in Computer Science, which is particularly bad off. I have classes where women are less than 10 per cent of the students.” When asked if she ever felt uncomfortable being a woman in science, she replied, “All the time. Every day. I’m writing this from the Physics lounge. There are currently three women in here (including me) and nineteen men. Sometimes, if I’m the only girl here, they forget that I’m here. I then get to listen to a lot of degrading, unpleasant talk.” It’s important to note that while women are rarely told that they are incapable of doing science based on their gender, merely a discrepancy in numbers can create an uncomfortable environment.

This, however, is something that needs to be changed at the societal level, she commented. “I don’t think any one school can solve this problem.”

Dean Grant believes it is profoundly important to make all students comfortable and able to work in their academic environment. He stated, “What actually changes things is that people feel comfortable with it and they see role models.” That is why he strives to hire smart, young, progressive women and men, who can be inspiring role models to the students, willing to both teach and research alongside them. For Dean Grant, it is important for students to identify with their professors. “It’s the most profound thing we do,” he says.

In some students’ eyes, Dean Grant’s efforts appear to be working. “I am very happy with the way McGill handles women in science. I realize there is a great deal of discrimination out there that women face at other universities, and I am thankful that McGill has seemingly eliminated this from their practices,” says Gilliam.

The problem comes down to the specific departments – particularly the students in those departments. Physics, Math, and Computer Science have fewer women than all the other departments, and women like Lyman-Abramovitch in those disciplines notice the discrepancy in ways that are not necessarily felt by women in other sciences.

Maddy Anthonisen, a Physics undergrad, says that she would be happy if a student club dedicated to women of science existed at McGill. “I think it’s a great idea; women are dramatically underrepresented in certain scientific fields (physics in particular) so it’s good to have a special campaign to target this issue…. There could be more clubs or programs dedicated to women in science. Maybe the club could talk to high school students.”

However, Gilliam says that starting a club exclusive for women in science would be no help. “It … would go against the ideal of science being non-gendered. A special “women in science” club would suddenly raise barriers and create a strong distinction of men versus women. The goal should be to integrate both genders equally, not separate them.”

Therein lies the solution: rather than dedicating a campaign to women in particular, there should simply be promotion of integration and equality of gender in science, wherein male and female students work together. While creating a safe space for women in the world of science is a necessary and admirable endeavour, the promotion of scientific careers should not be targeted to a single gender. The ideal of a non-gendered discipline is the goal, not a shift from “male dominance” to “female takeover.”

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