Science: it’s a geek thing

In Legally Blonde, ditzy superficial sorority girl Elle Woods ends up being a legal genius based on the people skills she picked up from her hectic social life. I like the film because it addresses a stereotype we all have: you have to act a certain way to be smart.

Presumably it’s this stereotype that the European Commission tried to address in their “Science: it’s a girl thing!” video, where women dance around in high heels, advertising the science of make-up or something. The backlash was so enormous that they took down the video, but someone saved it and reuploaded it to YouTube.

As a campaign to attract girls to study science, it completely fails, but the critiques on the video in many cases reinforced the stereotypes. By pointing out that very few women in science are like the women in the video, you’re almost acknowledging that there is a certain type of “scientist person”. That’s true, there is, but it has nothing to do with looks. It has to do with liking science. You can be interested in make-up and fashion and still be a good scientist. The problem is that the video doesn’t say anything about science – it’s all about looks.

In The Devil Wears Prada, journalism grad Andy has to survive an internship at a fashion magazine, and gets nowhere without changing her looks. In journalism, like in science, looks don’t matter that much, so she’s reluctant at first, but then adapts and gets accepted. (Spoiler alert: until she quits.) It’s a fascinating look into a world I totally and completely do not understand. Even though it’s a comedy, I can imagine a lot of this being not that far off from reality in the fashion world. They’re a completely different kind of people.

If the video is trying to address the kinds of girls for whom fashion is the be all and end all to get them to choose a science career, then it’s a complete failure, because they are just not scientists. It’s not their girliness that prevents them from choosing science; it’s their lack of appreciation for intelligence.

Science is as much a girl thing as it is a boy thing. In biology and chemistry programs, enrollment numbers of girls and boys are almost equal. But science is ultimately a geek thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy, if you like fashion or sports or neither, but you have to like using your brain.

The problem is that in high school, being interested in learning new things is a mark of social status, and one that usually does not overlap with the status of girls who like fashion. All our perceptions of what we expect people to be like, and whether or not they look and act the part – as addressed in Legally Blonde and The Devil Wears Prada – are even more defined in high school. Mean Girls explicitly portrays the ecosystem of high school cliques, but high school social status was also a key plot point in Clueless, in Freaks and Geeks, and in numerous other films and TV series.

The gut response from the science communication community to the “girl thing” video is one that seems to highlight the opinion that scientists are not like the girls in the video. But some of them are. What made them choose science, though, had nothing to do with their interest in fashion.

Not all scientists are the same. This Is What a Scientist Looks Like is a great Tumblr with pictures of actual scientists, that shows that they really are as varied as any group of people.

There is a bit of marginalisation of girly interests among scientists, and girly high school students might find that they are the only one among their friends who like science. The Science Cheerleaders address exactly that group of girls, and provide them with role models. But the EC has to understand that this is a niche group. The only common denominator among girls who have an interest in science, whether they’re into fashion or not, is that they are, at heart, a bit geeky. Show them some cool science, not another fashion shoot.

In fact, a recent study suggests that luring girls into science by showing them cool fashionable female scientists may have a negative effect on their career choices. Why? Because it’s double the pressure: the pressure of being cool and the pressure of being good at science. They were much more enticed by seeing plain women scientists, because it looked like something they could attain.

As for me, I lack any fashion sense. I dress like I’m going to sit at a computer all day, which I am. I fit the image of girl geek perfectly, except instead of being into sci-fi I’d rather watch clever comedies, preferably those about cliques and social consensus.