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EWL calls on Commission to learn from failed attempt to make science more "girly"

[Brussels, 06 July 2012] The EWL has written to the European Commission following the rapid removal of its video clip ‘Science: It’s a girl thing!’ due to overwhelming popular outrage at its sexist content. The video clip, designed to attract more women into careers in science, featured three seductive young girls laughing and posing amid test tubes and microscopes full of the basic materials of make-up and nail polish. The EWL has called for more effective gender mainstreaming in all the work of the Commission as well as ethical principles to ensure future communications campaigns promote women’s rights and equality between women and men – as is the EU’s treaty-bound duty.

The EWL is strongly supportive of the basic premise of this campaign which aims to promote women in science. Indeed, as it was underlined in a Commission press release on 21 June, there is a real lack of female scientists in the EU. While they make up more than half of the EU’s student population and 45 per cent of all PhDs, women only account for a third of career researchers. The Commission campaign includes video profiles of young women scientists are very inspiring.

"The campaign will challenge stereotypes of science and show young girls and women that science is fun and can provide great opportunities", stated the European Commission in its release. Yet instead of breaking down clichés, the video clip that was supposed to kick-off start the campaign end of June did the exact opposite, reproducing the very gender stereotypes that exclude women from top scientific carreers. Three young women are shown with short dresses and high heels, giggling and teasing a male scientist who, by contrast, is dressed with the appropriate (and most respectable) white gown.

The next 53 seconds feature the young women with sunglasses and nail polish in a pink surrounding. Through the microscopes and the testing tubes, no vital experiment, but all sorts of cosmetics. Does this mean that the only satisfaction that girls would find in science lies in the improvement of their make-up kit ? Nanotechnologies, neurology, or astronomy are obvisouly not ‘girly’ enough.

As the EWL stated in its letter: ‘Certain aspects of the outreach campaign nevertheless trouble the EWL in their promotion of blatant and harmful stereotypes. The logo, featuring a lipstick, we consider inappropriate. The recent promotional campaign video focusing on clothes, hair and makeup and featuring young women in flirtatious poses on a pink background is blatantly so, and strongly counterproductive.’

Criticism of the clip rose quickly in the press and social media, with female scientists posting counter-videos on Youtube. The messages concurred that instead of refering to the all-invasive issues for young girls of consumerism and beauty, this video clip could and should have referred to successful female scientists who, against all odds, were taking science forward while the clip was being shot and the girls were trying their heels on?

The European Commission put a lot of effort in trying to justify the tone of its campaign: withdrawal of the teaser, publication of a 4-page Q&A document and discussion on twitter. The main argument was that the clip was based on the results of marketing surveys. The lipstick replacing the "i" of science in the slogan for instance "catches the attention and forms a contrast with the "dry" and factual character of science."

In its letter to Commission, the EWL expresses its wish to wish to see the institution adopt ethical principles to ensure future communications campaigns promote women’s rights and equality between women and men – as is the EU’s treaty-bound duty.

No matter how profitable communication or marketing surveys can be, relying on such condescending gender stereotypes will never help Commission achieve what it is committed to; that is the progress of women’s rights and dignity throughout the EU. Science does not need to be sold to girls like another random lipstick, with nice models and a glamourous video spot. Instead of reinforcing myths according to which some things are ‘girl things’ while others are ‘boy things’, the campaign should counter these arbitrary discriminations and send the message that young girls and boys should be granted the same opportunites, the same consideration, the same confidence and the same ambitions for life.

The Commission website reflects understanding of this point: ‘Did you know that girls do as well as boys in science and maths at school but many more boys go on to further study science, technology and engineering? So girls, remember: you’ve got what it takes.’ This is the kind of strong message that the EWL would like this campaign to convey. To make it a success, it should not get twisted and completely discredited by a simplistic and enticing communication strategy.

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