Women just can’t win

28 Feb

Back in September, EDF, the energy company, launched a campaign to inspire girls to take part in science. They called it ‘Pretty Curious’, and the accompanying hashtag drew some criticism on twitter, as it associated girls’ interest with their appearance, and suggested that science has to be stereotypically feminised in order to appeal to female students. A similar approach had already led IBM to end a campaign called ‘HackAHairdryer, which was widely viewed as sexist. However, EDF defended its strapline as a way of opening the conversation on involving girls in science, and persisted in its plans to mount a series of science engagement events, culminating in a competition where students entered ideas for a domestic gadget.

This competition, the #PrettyCuriousChallenge, was opened to boys as well as girls, apparently on grounds of ‘fairness’, which is an odd decision when related to a campaign based on the fact that girls are underrepresented in science. As you may have seen in headlines, the ultimate irony is, that the competition was won by a boy. Yes, that’s right, a campaign with the stated aim ‘to change girls’ perceptions of STEM and encourage them to pursue science based careers’ , ended up with a male competition winner. How was the winner chosen? Well, a shortlist of entries was drawn up by a panel including girl students and then the entries were put to a public vote. Is it surprising that a boy won? No. A cursory glance at the literature around unconscious bias and science shows again and again that gender is a factor in hiring decisions, in perceived competence of scientists, and in rating work authored by men and women respectively. We still live in a world where men are advantaged because of baseline unconscious assumptions everyone makes about competence, credibility and science. I recently came across a study which showed that men’s academic work is rated more highly when it concerns stereotypically ‘male’ topics, while women’s – which is rated less well – suffers even more when in ‘male’ territory. So wider perceptions of girls are likely to influence public judgement of submitted work in science.

And this is perhaps the heart of the problem: shifting girls’ perceptions of STEM is only one part of the recipe required to make science more gender-equal. We need to address all the cultural and systemic reasons why women are less likely to persist in science or to be promoted in science careers once they are there. We need to confront the fact that this is about perceptions of women in an unequal society, not just girls’ own perceptions of their interests.

Jackie Fleming, the feminist cartoonist, has just written a book about women’s achievements being excluded from history. In a recent interview she points out that by not learning about the ingenuity of women in school, both girls and boys internalise the message that men are the important ones and women haven’t done much. This impression of women is cemented she says by ‘not giving them prizes, obviously, as that tends to go down in history’ . As I read that, I thought of what an own goal EDF has scored – the male winner will be on the record of their campaign to encourage women in science. It’s not the boy’s fault – I blame society.



One Response to “Women just can’t win”

  1. candledave February 29, 2016 at 10:30 PM #

    Like your blog – always very well argued. I write on similar topics but have only recently started and in a slightly more nonsensical / informal way, hence my take on this story yesterday.


    I”m trying to get to know a few like-minded individuals in the blogging world too.



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