Science. It’s a girl thing. We know that because the EU has swapped the “I” in “science” for a fuchsia lipstick and made a promo that looks like a Boots ad. Here come the girls, and they’re doing SCIENCE. Or if not science, certainly pouting in the vicinity of a Perspex beaker, which is almost near enough.
The girl thing campaign would be a clumsy effort to solve the problem of girls’ engagement in science, if that problem existed. But according the EU’s own press release for the campaign, the gender imbalance in science affects women – not girls:
Women represent more than half the students [in science, technology, engineering and maths] across the 27-nation European Union and 45 per cent of all doctorates but account for only one third of career researchers, the European Commission said.
If more than half of science students are female, doesn’t that suggest that the lack of lipstick in science isn’t any sort of a bar at all to girls pursuing the discipline? Seeing other women in scientific careers can be hugely inspirational – I read the Marie Curie entry in my First Encyclopaedia Of Chemistry till I about wore the ink off, and the young female scientists featured in the short biographical films that are also part of the EU project have the great advantage of being A) alive now, and B) not dead from self-sacrificial radiation poisoning.
I appreciate the value of role models. But if women are getting scarcer in science as the science gets more professional, maybe the problem isn’t that they can’t imagine strutting high-heeled through a lab: maybe the problem is with science as a profession.
Assuming that the EU’s figures are reliable, shouldn’t it be asking what happens between degree level and workplace to make the women fade away? Is it that, as in many professions, female fertility is punished? If you’re entering a career that requires lengthy qualifications, you’ll probably be in your 30s when you’re looking for your first job, and crappy employer attitudes to family could well force women to choose whether to have a baby and fall behind compared to male colleagues, or gamble their fertility and maybe never be able to get pregnant.
And even if you’re a woman of childbearing age who doesn’t want to have a baby, employers may still judge you as inconveniently liable to get pregnant – and discriminate against you accordingly. (I recently had lunch with a medic who told me that one of the professors in a specialism she was interested in pursuing had told her, unambiguously and unapologetically, that if she got pregnant there was no place for her in his lab.)
This sort of sexism is built into our labour structures, and not just in science. It’s a product of a tyrannical culture of presenteeism, which says work can always claim precedence over home. It’s a product of the unrelenting gendering of parenting, by which men’s contributions are patronised and devalued while women are shunted into the role of “natural” care giver.
And it’s a product of a culture that – rather than try to fix any of these difficult, systemic problems – would prefer to pretend that the issue is one of whether women want to enter science at all, rather than whether there’s something pushing them out. The EU’s data makes the whole Girl Thing project redundant. The real problem is why science isn’t a woman thing.
Text © Sarah Ditum; still taken from Science: It’s A Girl Thing! trailer