When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to be? I tell you what I didn’t want to be. A “lady” scientist. Yesterday, I saw another example of a long line of things that tick me off: EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign. This is a program designed to promote science to teenage girls. You might ask why something so innocuous would make me angry. It’s because I hate this presumption that STEM stuff needs to be girlified to appeal to female people. Historically and perhaps presently, this has been a way of pushing women scientists into a corner. (See the “polite botanists” of the 1800s.) This strategy appears to show interest in girls and women while in fact making sure we wear a nice pink badge at all times, drawing attention to our gender over and above our achievements as human beings.
I didn’t want to be a “lady” scientist, growing up. I wanted to be a scientist. I wasn’t concerned about being a #pretty scientist—although, like so many of my feminine cohort, perhaps I’ve turned out to be #distractinglysexy despite myself. The objectification of women in our larger culture is a thing. No reason to pretend it’s not. I think many of us who love the STEM fields were attracted to them because they seemed to be a place where we could do things with our minds. Where we might be valued for our thoughts and for our work. Do you need to be #pretty to be a scientist? A casual survey of the STEM community suggests it is not a requirement. Do we really need to explicitly extend the objectification of teenage girls into the STEM fields? No.
Are there barriers to entry for girls in STEM, and is there a dearth of role models, especially in the physical sciences and engineering? Sure, and we should work on those barriers if we want the STEM fields to become more diverse. But what I wanted, as a girl, was not a special place made for me. I wanted a chance to make a place for myself, the same as any other scientist. I never applied for scholarships or awards that would showcase me as a “lady” scientist. I didn’t want that kind of recognition. Being put in place made me mad. And I think a lot of other girls and women feel the same way. Just let us on the field. Just let us play.
Very often, when our society attempts to appeal to girls, we end up talking down to them. Instead of letting them on the field, we build them a separate (but pretty!) field. Consider a toy basically every STEM-type loves: Legos. When I was a girl, I had a whole lot of Legos, courtesy of my dad’s inclinations. They were great, but there was one problem: of my suitcases and suitcases full of Legos, I had like two girl figures. When I was five I wrote to the Lego company and told them they had made me mad. I needed more girls. In response to my cranky, block-printed letter, they sent me back a manilla envelope filled with female Lego figures. It was great! I was in heaven! Also included was a note that I found ominous even at the time. The company told me that I should be happy. They were working on special Legos just for girls.
And they were. But have you seen those things? The Legos “Friends” series? Barely Legos! Build a cupcake shop! Enjoy a hot tub! Play with these figurines that obviously are not compatible with the spaceships or dragons or robots your brother gets to have!
I’m sure the #PrettyCurious campaign was well-intentioned. However, this campaign, as well as so many other “female-friendly” initiatives, do more to stereotype girls, to put them in a place, than to unleash their minds and let them on the field. Let’s work for STEM education where every kid has a chance to be #relentlesslycurious or #obsessivelycurious or #allcuriousallthetime. No #pretty necessary.