This was brought to my attention this morning by a friend. I give you the horror that is: “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, a PSA from the European Commission in an attempt to woo women into the field of scientific research, where there is a troubling gender disparity. It’s a noble undertaking to be sure, but it would be a gross understatement to say this ad is misguided in that attempt; a more accurate description would be to say that it is a horrifying travesty. The ad opens with three female models strutting into a laboratory where a properly attired male scientist is clearly intrigued and then goes into a sequence of images of lipsticks, nail polish, and high-heeled shoes interspliced with images of bubbling chemicals and Erlenmeyer flasks. Essentially, they are trying to attract women by appealing to the things they think we’re into, namely, make-up, shoes, glitter, and giggles. I’m going to be opinionated for a moment and say that anyone who sees this should be deeply offended. It should be physically painful to watch.
But how then, I wondered, did such an abomination get the green light from an otherwise reputable (or at least innocuous) organization? I think I have an idea.
What is perhaps more disturbing than the article itself is the comments that follow. Writes one poster: “Where does this video “reinforce stereotypes”? Women bare and take care of the children, men bring the freaking meat. Complain to evolution. Following that which is embedded in us does not make it a stereotype. It does not make us chauvinist, it makes us homo sapient.” Ah yes, the homo sapient, our original ancestor. Clearly, this guy has a stronger biology background than I do because he surely must have read about all the cavewomen that have been unearthed wearing mascara and stilettos.
Apparently, we have “evolved” from “women bear the children, men bring the meat” to “women look pretty, men do the science”. Tomato, tomato. This guy’s best impression of a rational, educated person probably stems from a conversation he overheard about gender differences in the brain. Now, it is true that there are differences in the internal structure of the brain that have been proposed to affect how males and females perform at different tasks and does indicate that men and women might be predisposed to succeed at different things. But let’s not overstate and oversimplify these findings. For if that were true across the board with no other mitigating factors, then all men would be good at science. The fact of the matter is that that actually plays a very small part and pales in comparison to what different INDIVIDUALS are genetically predisposed to regardless of gender and what they can excel at if given the opportunity. And let’s not forget that evolution is driven by our surroundings; male and female brains and behavior may eventually evolve to be quite the same if, for example, jackasses stop saying, “Women should be in the kitchen; evolution has spoken.” This brings me to my most important point: what he is talking about has nothing to do with evolutionary biology. The female body’s fecundity or the female brain’s proclivity for empathy has just nothing to do with a modern-day woman’s affinity for clothes and make-up. It is a construct created and driven by society, nothing more. Furthermore, science is (or should be) genderless. It’s probably best if we assume that everyone in science regardless of their downstairs plumbing got into it because they were interested in, oh I don’t know, THE SCIENCE! And before a friend outs me, I might as well tell you. I am a feminine feminist; I have to say I like shiny, pretty things. So perhaps I am in the best position to assure you that I did not get into scientific research for the possibility of a fashion show. And it is not an indication that my female brain is no good at science. In fact, the day society thinks that the anthropological expert responsible for these inane comments would make a better scientist than me is the day I might as well not go on living. He goes on to say, “hmmm… maybe we should have men get pregnant too so that women shouldn’t have to…”. Yes, dear, that is what we meant by equality. And a biologically feasible proposition too.
In a slightly less disturbing comment that I still completely disagree with, another poster said: “My earlier objection was to commenters who seemed so focused on the idea that stereotypes are bad that they failed to consider the possibility that this advertising campaign could actually have a net positive value. There is a big difference between reinforcing a stereotype and using a stereotype to understand how some population is likely to respond to something.” The interesting thing here is that stereotyping actually does have an evolutionary basis; the ability for early man and woman to categorize something from its outward appearance and predict its behavior based on that was a necessary means of survival (Is it food or a predator?). And as their descendants, we do the same thing as a way of organizing and understanding our world. This just makes sense. Imagine if every time you encountered something or someone, you had to relearn what is was anew. Or how chaotic our minds would be if we treated everything and everyone as an individual instance instead of placing them in recognizable groups (e.g. “cats” or “people I know from work”). The problem arises when people start incorrectly using this to justify their bad behavior. One would be hard-pressed to find something generally regarded as “bad” in our society that we aren’t hard-wired for from hundreds of millions of years of evolution. In fact, almost all bad things we think and do occur to us naturally, so it would be absurd to excuse that behavior away on that premise. I’m sure the people who cite this argument sound initially thoughtful and learned. But the overlying and inescapable fact is that forming prejudicial notions about a person based on her gender (or age or ethnicity or sexual orientation or whatever) is universally agreed upon as bad and is discrimination, which is illegal in certain cases. And, make no mistake, believing that an ad for science that flashes around a bunch of pink and poofy things that have nothing to do with science will attract women (or girls) to the field is prejudiced. Period. The concept that this ad campaign is only addressing preexisting stereotypes, that it is less harmful because these notions were already prevalent and is even somehow cancelled out by the possibility of what could be gained from it is a fundamentally silly argument. “There is a big difference between reinforcing a stereotype and using a stereotype.” Um, no. No, there isn’t. It’s the same thing. Stereotypes, by definition, are bad; this particular one about the superficiality and frivolity of women is centuries old. But has this stereotype become so long-standing that people no longer hold you accountable for propagating it? If you are one looter amongst many, are you still responsible for the brick you threw through that window? Yes. Even if there are other looters doing far worse? Yes. Even if it has a “net positive” result? Yes. Yes, yes, yes. You are still responsible for your own actions. Wrong is wrong.
As it happens, I am reading Anna Karenina right now, and I’m seeing a lot of the same arguments about the duties women are fit for as they were making back in 19th century Russia. In a discussion among male aristocrats of women’s suffrage and whether or not to educate women, it says:
“What seems strange to me is that women should seek fresh duties,” said Sergey Ivanovitch, “while we see, unhappily, that men usually try to avoid them.”
“Just as though I should seek the right to be a wet-nurse and feel injured because women are paid for the work, while no one will take me,” said the old prince.
Hmmm…kind of sounds like poster # 1’s look-ladies-don’t-blame-us-blame-evolution and you-don’t-hear-us-complaining-that-we-can’t-get-pregnant approach, doesn’t it? This whole business is misogyny disguised as intellectualism.