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Is it worth it? L'Oreal pays lip service to women in science

Women are underrepresented in science, but are programs like those run by L'Oreal the answer? dno1967b

Is it worth it? L'Oreal pays lip service to women in science

Women are underrepresented in science, but are programs like those run by L'Oreal the answer? dno1967b

Each year, L’Oreal’s Australian and international women in science programs contribute significant sums of money to support research and encourage girls to enter careers in science, technology and engineering.

The catch for researchers is that nothing comes for free.

In exchange for support, individual scientists and research institutions become aligned with a unique and sophisticated public relations strategy, aimed specifically at embedding this manufacturer of beauty products within the world of reputable scientific research and notions of empowered and successful young women.

So, with applications opening on March 18 for L'Oreal’s annual Australian Women in Science Fellowships, is the cosmetics giant merely paying lip service?

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Women remain underrepresented at senior levels of all scientific and technological fields in Australia. This is in part due to the typical structure of research careers that make it difficult to maintain funding and momentum during periods when women begin families.

This problem is compounded by funding models that favour strong track records and make it difficult for young researchers to gain a foothold on the ladder to success and stability, and by the overall fierce competitiveness for very limited funding resources.

In 2012, just over 20% of National Health and Medical Research Council project grant applications were successful, despite over half being deemed worthy of funding.

Enter L'Oreal

L’Oreal first began its support of female scientists in 1998 when it introduced the L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science Awards: annual prizes of US$100,000 to women around the world, to use towards furthering their own research.

Since then, the program has expanded to include the annual L’Oreal International Fellowships of up to US$40,000 to support young women in life science research, multiple programs aimed at encouraging an interest in science and technology careers among girls and, in 2007, the first annual Australia and New Zealand Women in Science Fellowships, which award A$25,000 to women in the early stages of their research careers.

L'Oreal’s focus on cosmetics and beauty could be seen as conflicting with its interests in science. ExpoMeloneras

The money is welcome, of course. But what are the consequences for academic science when it aligns itself with an industry known for its use of questionable scientific claims to sell make-up, face creams and hair care products? And what kind of message does it send to young women aspiring to build successful careers in research?

Like many cosmetics companies, L’Oreal aims to position its beauty products as the outcome of advanced scientific research. Whether the product is “enriched with peptides”, is “clinically proven” to create skin that “glows with a new luminosity”, or with “exclusive liquid light technology […] infuses skin with a ray of light”, hyperbolic language peppered with non-specific scientific and technical terms is sure to abound.

Walking the line

The fine line between credible science and product promotion has been a problem for L’Oreal in the past. In many cases, if cosmetic products really did what they claimed to do they would have to be classified as drugs, which need demonstrated proof of their safety and efficacy to be sold.

Professor V. Narry Kim was selected as a recipient of the 2008 L'Oreal-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science. AAP/Yonhap

Indeed, in September 2012, Lancome (owned by L’Oreal) received an official warning from the US Food and Drug Administration about advertising that its anti-wrinkle creams had the drug-like qualities of being able to “stimulate cell regeneration” or “boost the activity of genes”.

L’Oreal has also faced criticism from the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which in 2011 banned a series of print advertisements for anti-wrinkle products involving airbrushing that the Authority ruled were misleading to consumers.

L’Oreal’s funding of scientific research needs to be viewed through the lens of a company with a credibility problem when it comes to its own scientific credentials. Aligning itself with academic science may be good PR for L'Oreal, but at what cost does this come to a field that relies, by its very nature, on public trust and respect?

The body beautiful

Just as L'Oreal has an image problem when it comes to its science, as part of the cosmetics industry it also gets a bad wrap when it comes to issues of body image. By associating itself with dedicated young women in science, L'Oreal gains an opportunity to transform its public dialogue with women and speak in terms of empowerment, independence and professional success.

At a recent L’Oreal Girls in Science Forum, high school students had the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best and brightest medical researchers in Australia, with the aim of sparking a passion for science. They were then sent home with a gift bag containing an assortment of L’Oreal products.

The focus on the body that the cosmetics industry brings is not just potentially damaging because it perpetuates, at least in part, the notion that a woman’s value resides in how others judge her appearance; it also obscures the deeper structural and cultural issues that discourage women from embarking on and continuing in careers in science.

The problem of how to market careers in maths, science and technology to girls in a respectful and rounded way without resorting to reductionist stereotypes is potentially fraught, as the European Commission recently learned following its heavily criticised Science, It’s A Girl Thing! campaign. It is a problem, however, that arguably demands a better response than the beauty industry can offer.

Promo video for the Science: It’s A Girl Thing! campaign.

Show me the money

At the end of the day, does it really matter where the money comes from? As scientists we may be uncomfortable with publicly associating ourselves with an industry that hijacks and misuses the language of our profession for profit.

And when it comes to feminism, the debate surrounding the role of the cosmetics industry in society could fill volumes.

But when careers in research are being promoted to young women, and when the fellowships are being used to find solutions to climate change, or to find cures for devastating diseases such as malaria and blood cancer, especially when funding is so hard to come by, maybe it’s time to take a pragmatic approach.

That said, integrity is hard to come by and easy to lose. Somehow one can’t help asking: aren’t we, as women and as scientists, worth more?