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Science, it’s a girl thing! But I’ll keep my adjustable spanner

Glamorising women in science or incredibly offensive? You decide.

You’ve really got to wonder when even is questioning whether the latest European Union campaign to attract girls towards a science career is a spoof.

The video being referred to was for the launch of the “Science, it’s a girl thing. It depicts teenage girls cavorting, catwalk-style, in short skirts and high heels, with beakers and the word "Hydrogen” popping up on the screen. The video below reveals all, for those brave enough to watch it. But let’s not beat about the bush: it’s offensive to all women in science.

Such was the reaction to the video on social media that the video soon got set as “private” on youtube – a move intended to limit its exposure – and the architects of the campaign sent back to think again. In the words of the EU: “OK Scientists, we’ve heard you”.

OK, so perhaps it’s confession time. Yes, I’m a woman and, yes, I’m a scientist. I have been known to wear a short skirt from time to time (and even in the lab) but usually paired with woolly tights. I don’t wear lipstick and frankly, with my sense of balance, I’m afraid of high heels.

Science is rarely ditzy or glitzy. Olivia Mabrey

And in actual fact, I don’t think the website the video was constructed to draw attention to – Science: It’s a girl thing! – is too bad. A little liberal with the pink and love hearts, yes, but with some informative videos showing genuine and engaging scientific role models.

The site also breaks down the grand challenges facing science really nicely and points out where future employment might lie in those challenging areas.

But I was left thinking: why is it up to the girls to sort out all these problems? Have all the boys gone to the pub? Why the need to polarise science to be a “girl” thing when people are in their early teens.

The stated aims of the whole EU campaign are that we need more women in science-related subjects, and we need more women in research careers. I’d have loved to see some numbers and justification for this, but I just cannot find it on the EC website.

Pink: what’s the link? RecycledStarDust

I suppose I’m not sure the EU campaign sufficiently highlghts the bigger problem with women in science – the dreaded leaky pipeline, described below.

I’m afraid I’ll have to fall back on my UK experience here (and please comment if you know the Australian numbers – I’d be really interested to know) but the problem is not getting girls interested in science: it’s keeping them in the fold once they are hooked.

Looking at those taking A levels (English senior school qualifications, taken at 18 and a prerequisite for university) in 2011, girls outnumbered boys in biology and psychology and were pretty much 50/50 in their choice of chemistry as a subject.

But from here the proportions are seen to shrink. Fewer women go from A levels to a science degree, even fewer to a PhD and so on: this is the leaky pipeline. The United Kingdom Resource Centre (a body created to promote gender diversity and equality in science areas) have crunched the numbers, and it’s the same picture across the board of academia and industry.

But it isn’t as if the academic community is not aware of the issues, with some making active steps to attempt to stop up some of the leaks.

There are subjects for which the pressure of numbers entering the subject does need to increase. Physics is one of these.

Biology is often the preferred science subject for women to pursue, as evidenced by The Big Bang Theory. Michael Yarish/Warner Bros.

The reason for the dearth of women in physics as a whole seems pretty complex and there would seem no clear strategy to address this.

But does that dearth actually need “addressing”? Will the number of women physicists over time increase, without intervention, as has been the case for biology and chemistry? (These are genuine questions: I’m intrigued about what people think/know about this).

My worry is that the small number of women in physics becomes a self-perpetuating issue: with less women in the system, there’s less of a community to attract new women in.

I gave a tour today of the Australian Synchrotron to a bright group of girls from a Melbourne school. I doubt that any of them would be fooled into studying science by replacing the ‘i’ in “science”, as per the doomed EU campaign, with a picture of a lipstick.

As with anybody, they need to be engaged and to have their curiosity ignited and encouraged when their confidence fails them. Plus, let’s not put all the pressure of the future of science on their shoulders – science really should be an “everybody” thing.

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