Science: It’s a Girl Thing

On May 30, 2013 by Elizabeth Molina-Markham
Panel discusses EC “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” video. From left to right: Julia Bradley-Cook (moderator) , Alexandra Giese‬, Chelsea Vario‬, Stephanie Gregory‬, Courtney Hammond‬, Lee Corbett‬, and Jessica Trout-Haney‬.

Panel discusses EC “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” video. From left to right: Julia Bradley-Cook (moderator) , Alexandra Giese‬, Chelsea Vario‬, Stephanie Gregory‬, Courtney Hammond‬, Lee Corbett‬, and Jessica Trout-Haney‬.

In June 2012, the European Commission (EC), the executive body of the European Union, released a marketing video, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing,” with the goal of encouraging young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-related disciplines. The video is on YouTube and has been viewed almost 1.5 million times in the last year.

Internationally, reactions to the video were very passionate, and similar to those expressed by researchers here at Dartmouth. In general, “[The EC video] did not actually show any science being done. One woman was scribbling nonsense on a board a la A Beautiful Mind. The other two were doing nothing but laughing, giggling, and looking pretty,” remarks Thayer School of Engineering graduate student AJ Pattison.

Although it is clear that the EC is attempting to communicate via “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” that women do not have to sacrifice femininity for intellectual curiosity, overall, Dartmouth researchers feel they were unsuccessful. Genetics graduate student Lee Brooks suggests that the video “may actually discourage girls from participating in science because it clearly reinforces gender roles that many girls find offensive and/or boring.” Associate Professor of biology Amy Gladfelter remarks that the EC video, “shockingly lack[ed] substance. There could have been substance and glamour combined but this just lacked content.”

Fortunately, graduate students Julia Bradley-Cook (ecology and evolutionary biology, EEB), Lee Corbett (earth sciences), Alexandra Giese (earth sciences), Stephanie Gregory (engineering), Jessica Trout-Haney (EEB), Chelsea Vario (EEB), and Courtney Hammond (field assistant) felt the same way when they first saw the EC video shortly after their arrival in Greenland, as part of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) in polar science. These students all reacted negatively to the EC video’s propagation of inaccurate female stereotypes, and together, they decided to make their own “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” video, showcasing the day-to-day research, data collection, and analysis of polar field science in Greenland.

The resulting video, directed, filmed, and edited by Hammond, was uploaded to YouTube in November 2012 and has been viewed over 11,000 times. It presents 1 minute and 35 seconds of beautiful scenery and equally exciting science. The video has been featured on the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Huffington Post websites, and in general, the reactions are positive.

After watching the video, genetics graduate student Devin Schweppe says that the IGERT team “reaffirms that an increasing number of graduate students and investigators in STEM disciplines are women and shows them being successful, adventurous, and adept.” Associate Professor of microbiology and immunology Deb Hogan agrees, “The IGERT video is fantastic. It made me want to go on a field trip with them… [it] really embodies the curiosity of scientists, the teamwork involved in science, the satisfaction one gets from research.”

Biochemistry graduate student Kelli Hvorecny also notes that the IGERT video “is a good jumping-off point for greater discussion of the merits of careers in science.” Indeed, on May 15th, Bradley-Cook, Corbett, Giese, Gregory, Trout-Haney, Hammond, and Vario sat on a panel as part of Dartmouth’s campaign to celebrate 40 years of coeducation. During the panel they were enthusiastically encouraged by audience members to distribute their video as an educational tool in primary and secondary schools.

The success of the video aside, Dartmouth researchers agree that the types of science showcased could have been more varied. When asked what she would include in a new “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” video, microbiology graduate student Angelyca Jackson would also “focus on the diversity of the fields in which female scientists make careers (microbiology, physics, engineering, biochemistry, etc.) and show a wide array of women in those roles.” When envisioning her video, biochemistry graduate student, Pinar Gurel would also “show a wide range of girls doing science” as well as “some shots of girls doing feminine stuff like bejeweled lab equipment… this way, we can get a nice mix of people doing actual science, having fun, and being a girl/feminine.” Program in Experimental and Molecular Medicine (PEMM) graduate student Marie Onakomaiya agrees with Jackson and Gurel about the importance of maintaining a level of femininity in a video for young girls, remarking that her own video would have two parts and “show women in their nice clothes, and then show the same women with their lab coat doing work in the lab or field like in [the IGERT] video.”

While Corbett acknowledges that she would “love to see a video that shows a much broader representation of women in science,” Giese suggests that their video “does make the point that there are many types of science” by highlighting that polar field science, for example, “does not involve test tubes, beakers, and smoke.” When asked what she would change if they could make the video again, Hammond says it would “be an interesting exercise to imagine what [we] could have done with this video given the resources that the original European Commission had (around 100,000 euros).”

After watching the EC video, it is easy to be critical of the EC campaign. However, the EC “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” campaign website is brightly colored, inviting, and available in 23 languages. Furthermore, in response to the angry criticism of their video, the EC held a video competition for girls to submit their own experiences.

Schweppe acknowledges, “The EU video is more targeted towards younger women (early teens) who are wrestling with femininity and how it incorporates with and delineates into choices of their future career paths.” However, according to PEMM graduate student Mandy Balboni, “We don’t need makeup to show glamour—instead show the look on someone’s face when they make their first discovery, or when they’ve worked on a project that has made an impact on human disease. That is glamorous and a realistic way to inspire young women and encourage their interest in science.”

by Jeanine Amacher

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