Life as an Extreme Sport

Socializing Girls Away from STEM

Sometimes, I wonder if the problem with STEM and girls and their interest isn’t that we devalue STEM to girls, but that we devalue girls and their interests.

Image via EDF.
Image via EDF.
In October 2015, EDF’s Pretty Curious campaign drew a lot of ire from scientists (mostly women), both for the name and for the content of the promotional material. You see, one of the people involved was a cosmetics scientist.

I found the outrage over the name to be a bit baffling, because while I admit I really wished to be called pretty when I was a kid, I was called pretty curious all the time (and I suspect those who’ve worked with me can attest this much is still true; I’m insatiably curious about the world). I don’t hear a slur or a gendered put-down in that; instead, I actually hear the kind of language people are encouraged to use when discussing young girls: talk about their minds, not their bodies. And “pretty curious” is definitely addressing the mind!

It almost seemed like bigger outrage came around the fact that the campaign includes cosmetics scientist Florence Adepoju. Rather than focusing on diversity, as Adepoju is a woman of color, critics focused on the fact that she’s a cosmetics scientist. Because, you know. Girls and makeup and stereotypes–nevermind that you actually need science to make makeup, and that’s part of the point of including Adepoju in the first place: she used science to study how to make makeup (her dissertation was on getting lipstick to stay on lips), and built that into a successful smallbatch makeup business for women of color.

Not bad for 24, eh? Certainly the sort of women I’d like the girls in my life to look up to, anyhow.

But she does makeup, you see. And so people jump on it for being too girly, and the message that’s sent? Well, whether it’s intentional or not, it’s telling girls (and women) that it’s bad to be interested in makeup, in “girly” things.

My cousin wanted to start up summer jewelry-making classes in an income and resource-poor area of the country; she’d provide the tools and materials and teach anyone who was interested how to make jewelry–and sneak in geology lessons via gemstones. After all, to understand the quality of what you’re working with, you need to know how it’s made. She was specific in saying that anyone would be welcome, but also that she wanted to target younger girls in her community who might feel alienated from more boisterous physical sciences summer-camp-esque classes, which are largely populated by boys in her area.

I floated the idea by some scicomm people, who were horrified. Jewelry-making? It’s too stereotypical! We need girls to go into STEM! Not be girls! Another friend is getting the similar pushback over a science-y fitness class.

It’s a very weird sort of mental holding to have, isn’t it? We can’t use science to talk about things that girls are interested in, are targeted to via advertising, will likely spend lots of money on for themselves over the course of their lives, and have the potential to be skills useful for real-life, adult, science jobs.

The examples, though, seem to me to indicate not a problem with STEM, but a problem with girls. In particular, a problem with the way society can socialize girls to be “girly,” to like makeup and jewelry, to want to stay fit, to be interested in clothing design. But instead of working to open those areas up to boys while simultaneously encouraging girls, it seems like we’ve kneejerked so far away that any attempts to frame these “girly” areas as science-and-okay-for-girls is rejected.

But I have a feeling that when we do that? We’re rejecting the girls who are interested in these areas, and not the socializing behind the girls.

4:46pm, edited to add: After I posted this, Bethany pointed out that this was a discussion going on in early January that I probably missed because I was still recovering from emergency hospitalization/surgery/death-flu stuff. So here is Jamie Bernstein’s post In Defense of Pink Science, and Shannon Palus’s post that Bernstein was responding to.


  1. The female science communicator receiving all sorts of pushback for how girly and stupid it is to waste a Ph.D. by (a) teaching fitness and (b) working with children thanks you for this.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I will go back to sneaking kinesiology and nutritional science lessons to 7 year olds who like dancing, while also getting them to like and appreciate their bodies for their capabilities to move and dance, and encouraging them to recognize the connections between exercise, diet, and energy/mood in a scientific way.

    Oh I’m sorry I misspoke there, “glorified babysitting.” I’ll get back to “glorified babysitting.”

  2. Seems to me that science is about expanding the limits of our knowledge, not about value judgments. If lipstick or jewelry is the “hook” that brings curious–and potentially brilliant–minds into science, then why not?! We can’t know where that path will lead until someone blazes it.

    STEM fields have seriously stiff competition when it comes to getting the attention of today’s youth. We can’t afford to create obstacles, and denouncing Pretty Curious or similar ideas as frivolous only feeds the very stereotyping that the hyper-politically correct are so adamantly trying to stamp out.

    No one person or program can appeal to everyone–and I think this is the most important take-away here. We (in STEM fields, in the USA) seem pretty comfortable with programs aimed at increasing access to STEM fields for low-income students, or African-American students, or Latinos, etc. If a program can successfully draw girls and young women into STEM fields, we should be applauding that equally.

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