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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 06/22/2012

E.U.’s ‘Science, it’s a girl thing’ campaign sparks a backlash

With a kitschy new video, the European Commission hopes to assure girls in Europe that scientific professions are feminine and fun. But while the message might have been admirable, some are cringing at the execution.

The European Commission launched the “Science: it’s a girl thing” campaign Thursday with the goal of attracting more women to research professions.

To kick off the initiative, they released a video that features young women strutting around a neon-colored laboratory wearing heels and mini-dresses, gasping as they examine atomic models and blowing kisses at test-tubes:

“We want to overturn clichés and show women and girls, and boys too, that science is not about old men in white coats,” said Geoghegan-Quinn, the European Research, Innovation and Science Commissioner at the European Parliament in Brussels, according to a report by the New Statesman.

However, many viewers felt it reinforced stereotypes rather than overturning them, and Twitter erupted with jeers Friday morning:

“#EU Commission campaign video to get more girls into science full of icky clichés rsrch.co/Ll07lF #cringe #sciencegirlthing,” wrote the Brussels-based research magazine Research Europe.

“Thnx to EC #sciencegirlthing, reminded that no time to write for Nature today. Off to do nails + strut in 4’’ heels,” wrote Helen Pearson, a writer and editor for Nature.

“The EU have funded a campaign to make women in science wear shorter skirts. #sciencegirlthing,” wrote Bad Science author and epidemiologist Ben Goldacre.

“In general getting young people to study a particular area (then follow as a career), is a lot more complicated than hits on a video teaser,” wrote Petra Boynton, a lecturer in International Health Research at the University College of London.

In response to a question on Twitter from Bristol University researcher Tasmin Edwards as to whether the video was “a fiendish ploy to highlight the stereotyping of women and scientists,” Michael Jennings, the spokesman for Research, Innovation and Science at the European Commission, wrote:

“Commission doesn’t really do irony. Hope was to get young people onto site. That seems to be happening!”

The whimsical video belies a serious mission. Women are under-represented in scientific fields in the United States, and the European Union faces a similar issue. The Commission said women constitute 40 percent of university graduates in science, mathematics and computing, and 32 percent of all career researchers. And beyond the gender gap, there simply aren’t enough scientists to meet European business’s needs, the Commission says.

“The European Union has set itself the goal of increasing [research and development] spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2020, compared with around 2 per cent now, and will need an extra 1 million researchers to make this a reality. Some businesses already complain about a lack of researchers and skilled technical workers,” the Commission wrote in a release.

To be fair, the video isn’t the only aspect of the campaign. The Commission says that in addition to a Web site with quizzes and video profiles of scientific role models, there will be “Science Cafes” set up in schools, and a mobile expo truck that will wind its way through Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland and will bring “fun, on-the-spot science activities” to European youth.

Let’s hope these “science activities” don’t consist entirely of determining the chemical composition of nail polish.

Click here to see the best and worst G20 countries for women:

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By  |  11:54 AM ET, 06/22/2012

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