Sidelining the sexy scientist

As the European Commission defends its decision to feature models in place of real researchers in a new ad campaign, Yvanne Kennedy examines how negative the video’s effects will be

Offensive, sexist, demeaning and insulting are just some of the ways a video posted online by the European Commission about Science and women’s role in the field, has been described. Lipstick, high heels and attractive male lab technicians set the backdrop to a film designed to attract more women to the field of Science, however it is more plausible that it will have the opposite effect.

This video is a snapshot. The Commission wanted to portray a career that can be fun and exciting while also being fulfilling and beneficial, not that the latter two could necessarily be seen in this film. Scientists of both genders have called it out as despicable and uncalled for and a move that could regress people’s thinking about the part everyone has to play to a time and place we don’t want to revisit.

The problem is, however, the force behind it. This isn’t just a music video, though it may be confused for one. It’s also not just any old advertisement. It is a campaign from a Commission that is supposed to set the tone for the European Union. Were it not these people who created the video, one would assume that they would be part of the group fighting against it, and everything it stands for. If it isn’t supposed to be funny, as the Commission has openly asserted, are we supposed to believe that this is the way forward? Is this what we’re supposed to think about women in science or in any other high powered job requiring skill and intellect?
The video is not all bad, but there is something inherently disheartening about the fact one of our governing bodies believing that this sort of attitude towards women is acceptable, and more than that, that it is something which should be promoted. If this was a small video, by a small company, there would still be uproar about it, though perhaps on a smaller scale.

As it stands, there has been relatively little backlash.  The Telegraph sites in excess of 1,700 dislikes on YouTube but that is all. At the time of writing, there are 6,139 dislikes with 926 likes, out of the 562,536 people who viewed the video. There doesn’t seem to be too much outrage if the rest couldn’t even be bothered to press a button to express their opinion. Should we be more worried about this online apathy  or is it indicative of little?

It seems pertinent to look at some figures; scientists like statistics.  The ‘It’s a  Girl Thing’ video is only one of a series of clips the Commission released to promote careers in Science for the fairer sex. It is quickly forgotten that the numerous other videos show accomplished, intelligent, warm, inquisitive women doing what they love. Some of the world’s most celebrated women form the real backdrop to the campaign, not the sexy lab assistants. Also, if one small sixty second film was going to radically change people’s minds about women’s place in society, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

The film doesn’t show the better side of the argument for women in Science, nor does it give the girls they’re trying to encourage, any real idea of what working in a lab or out in the field would be like. However, pushing against it probably isn’t doing as much good as we may like to think. Yes, we can make a lot of noise and bring it to people’s attention but a more positive way would be to fight fire with fire and bring out videos that combat the stigma. Highlighting the other work done for this campaign also wouldn’t hurt.

The Commission clearly hadn’t quite thought through their decision, when they tagged this particular clip onto their advertising campaign, but as an EC spokesperson said, they “don’t really do irony”. The video may have been branded offensive but it was not conceived with malice and at the very least, we know the backlash means something – there are a whole multitude out there who don’t see it as an accurate portrayal and want to fight to have women recognised as scientists and not as women who do some research. That has to be positive, right?