This past weekend I attended the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. This was the first time I had been, but I could tell there was a tremendous push towards attracting and including girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. Just walking by I saw “girl” booths splashed with pinks and purples. Danica McKellar (Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years) was there, the author of Hot X: Algebra Exposed and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape, and there were science cheerleaders. Yes, cheerleaders. Dressed up in white go-go boots and beauty queen hair, they flashed their glittery pom-poms and cheered for science. They are all scientists, but also professional cheerleaders in the past. The last provoked the most discussion between attendees, and I wondered to myself, is this really bad, and does this actually work?
I don’t have any data to back this up, so I mostly reflected upon my childhood experiences. I was (and still am) a “girly girl” and not the typical scientist, especially ecologist appearance-wise. I wear make-up, love fashion, and wear sparkly jewelry. As a child, I played My Little Ponies, Barbies, and adored Disney princesses. I did not like the typical boy toys. My brother was older than me and therefore I would often be forced to play G.I. Joes, Transformers, and the worst – WWF wrestling. With GI Joes, I would always be the (one of few) females or animal accessories as characters. For Transformers, at least I could find a colorful or shiny one to play with. For wrestling, there was no hope. I hated it.
I imagined myself attending this festival as a young girl and tried to imagine what I would be attracted to. I have to admit it. The girl booths would have worked on me. But I also think it’s more than just adding pink; I think science (and STEM) often suffers a design problem. Let me explain. What eventually attracted me to science was animals and nature. I had strong interests in art and often the two fields coincide, as nature has inspired artists for centuries. I found animals and nature alluring and appealing, which as I grew up, led to a deeper understanding, and eventually motivation for asking my own questions about animals as a scientist. Booths or advertisements for these fields are often very visually appealing as they can rely on photographs and images, and attract people of all different backgrounds.
It seems like other disciplines within science and STEM suffer from not being able to make their fields as attractive visually (there are exceptions, and this does seem to be changing). This is not to say that they don’t have amazing images (Don’t believe me? Check out Nature’s Images of 2013 – many are not animals), but they don’t make good use of them. People are visual learners. Pictures are inspiring and tell stories. People remember pictures. In addition to just using pictures, I think STEM needs to also think about design. Being attractive and inviting, and offering different types of design (e.g. not just pink for girls) will attract different types of kids from different cultures.
Finally, if a pink booth or a sparkly cheerleader draws in girls into that field, for their own increased interest or as a career, than they are reaching a girl that may have previously been turned off to what seems like an unattractive field. There were little girls lined up to meet the cheerleaders and excited to talk to them. These cheerleaders are all scientists. Maybe for these girls to learn that scientists can be sparkly, pretty, and smart is not so bad.