Let’s play Stereotype Bingo with the European Commission!

Apparently, science is a “girl thing”. Thank you for that enlightenment, European Commission! As a female astrophysicist friend put it, the EU’s brand new initiative to attract more women into science is offensive to both men and women – and frankly to scientists. So looking at the teaser video (above) and other content on the site, let’s play Stereotype Bingo!
Stereotype Bingo
Let’s start from the top, shall we?
Women want to know about work-life balance as much as about the job
Looking at the profiles of women in science videos, nearly half the time in each video is dedicated to what these amazing women do in their free time, be it play football, go shopping or look after the kids. Firstly, there are plenty of women out there who just want to know what the job is, thank you very much. More importantly though, perpetuating this stereotype with employers is actively harmful to women’s careers. Women are already seen as a liability because they “they can run off and have kids any time”, with high-profile business leaders like Alan Sugar demanding the right to ask women about childcare plans at interview stage. Sure, if we’ll treat men in the same way, let’s talk about work-life balance. But let’s not make it the most important topic for one gender only.
Women are naturally caring
In Six reasons why science needs you, we are told about scientific careers in healthcare (healing); food security (feeding); transport, energy and climate action (fixing our broken planet); and “innovative and secure societies” (keeping everyone safe). Hang on! Where are my explosions? I demand explosions!
Women like pink!
It is impossible to attract women to our website without pink. Perhaps the European Commission should have a word with Pink Stinks. ’nuff said.
Make-up! The science of make-up!
Apparently the Commission have been cribbing ideas from the German Greens [article in German] who recently suggested that one way to get girls interested in science was to teach them about make-up. Apart from the fact that there are plenty of other more exciting applications of chemistry, physics and biology, one does wonder whether the people behind this appreciate the amount of time scientists researching hair dye spend handling strands of cut-off human hair.
It’s a “girl thing”. Even running your own department you’ll still be a girl.
Brian Cox notwithstanding, most people entering scientific careers do actually age beyond 12. Calling women in science “girls” infantilises them and diminishes the achievements of highly professional women like Dr Silke Buehler-Paschen, featured in one of the role model videos.
Clothes and shopping are supremely important to women
In under a minute, the teaser video features three close-ups of shoes. Award-winning veterinarian virologist Dr Ilaria Capua spends a significant amount of time in her role model video shopping for clothes. This is the woman between us and the bird flu apocalypse! I don’t want to know about her clothes!
Women ask for directions
This one is from Iris Slootheer’s video. She talks about the difference between girls and boys, and how women will ask questions if they don’t understand something, whereas men will just get bogged down. There are two problems with this. Firstly, it depends very much on the context whether women will ask questions. In a large mixed-sex group, even a gender-balanced one, women will rarely ask questions. I’ve been to talks on abortion with largely female audiences where only men asked any questions. Secondly, when women do ask questions in situations where men don’t – generally because they would like something explained in a different way – this makes their peers perceive them as less capable. There are many such differences in the ways the same behaviour is perceived in different genders, and they do tend to make it more difficult to for women to progress in male-dominated professions. (Sheryl Sandberg does a great job explaining some of this, as do Pat Heim and Randall Munroe.)
Event when it’s messy, “girl science” is clean
This is one of the things that struck me about the teaser video. We have a bit of dry ice, we have eye shadow going all over the place, but ultimately, everything is crisp and clean. My mother was a research chemist before circumstances forced her to change career, and she got to set things on fire. Let me tell you – that was messy!
Women like practical and applied things. No theory here.
With the exception of Dr Yael NazĂ© who is an astrophysicist, all of the women featured in the role modelling videos are in the applied sciences. Where are the theoretical physicists and mathematicians? I’m sure women can cope with theory just as well as men!
A scientific career is a good way to meet men
Look at Microscope Boy in the teaser video! The sharp jaw line; the smouldering looks! Don’t you want to go into science just to meet him? Dr Marieke Huisman also mentions this in her video. Because clearly the reason I want to spend my entire career in a male-dominated field is so I can meet boys. There’s a running joke that Vienna’s medical school is Austria’s largest dating agency, but really, that’s so 20th century!
You have a free choice of career at the age this website is aimed at
This is one of the more insidious messages of the campaign. Let’s face it, if you’re a girl at 16 or 17 looking at this and trying to decide whether to go into science, you have years of schooling behind you during which you will have been subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) encouraged to think that real science isn’t for girls, that liking science makes you unfeminine, or that femininity and attractiveness to the opposite sex matter more than intelligence and your future career. We have bigger problems that convincing 17-year-olds that science is sexy. Let’s start by removing the requirement for sexiness from everything girls and women do.
Your achievements are not as important as your “passion”
All of the women in the role model videos do a brilliant job of getting across their passion and enthusiasm for science. This is great! Yet why are we not recognising their achievements in these videos? Several of these women are at quite an advanced stage in their career: they have not only doctorates but run departments and have won awards. Why are their titles not used in the videos? Why don’t they get to talk about some of the amazing achievements of their careers? Passion is hugely important, but being able to showcase your results is what will get you up that career ladder!
Women are creative and being so is important to them
Creativity is one of the buzzwords that’s hugely overused across the site and I suspect this has something to do with gender stereotypes. Women are commonly seen as more creative and therefore when marketing careers to them the opportunity to be creative is a selling point. I know enough scientists to know that science is very much 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. You will spend a lot of time on your own, looking at a computer screen. You will stare at data until your eyes are square. You will drip liquids into test tubes until your fingers hurt. And then you’ll do it some more. Setting unrealistic expectations of a job helps no one. Yes, of course there’s room for insight and creativity, but there’s a lot more room for hard work, for Hubble having used the wrong filter on your data so you’ve now misplaced a galaxy, and for staring at your code for hours until your colleague looks over your shoulder and points out the missing semi-colon.
International careers are awesome!
Well, they are, to an extent. Several of the women in the role model videos talk about the fantastic international opportunities they have had. However, what is hidden behind this is the fact that science careers, certainly in the early stages, are extremely uncertain and precarious. When your school friends are on their second baby, you’ll just about be finishing your education. After that, chances are you will end up in a series of itinerant postdoc positions, moving to a different university every couple of years. If you’re lucky, you might become a lecturer one day, though tenure is increasingly elusive. Oh, and you’d better not have met a nice boy-scientist (or another girl-scientist) after all, because their career will almost certainly take them to the opposite side of the world to you!
Women are innately social creatures
A few of the videos emphasise the social interactions of scientific work (teaching students, meeting colleagues, etc.) over the time spent staring at your code or dripping liquids into test tubes. You know what? Some women hate people and will happily sit by themselves with their code and their test tubes. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Boy-scientists will ogle you
This one is actually probably true. Look at how we are again prioritising attractiveness to the opposite sex (see Microscope Boy) over our own achievements!
There are a few things I do like about the campaign. Despite their flaws I like the role model videos. I like that they cover a range of sciences as well as women at very different stages in their career. Role models are hugely important and the range of women we see here can hopefully give girls confidence that there is place and a path for them in a scientific career. Overall though? Could do better.

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