What Science With A Sparkle Says to Girls and Boys

"You [girls] can like science without transgressing the boundaries of acceptable femininity — but those boundaries are very important, and you would do well to learn where they are and stay within them. Maybe they will convince some girls that science is cool, but if they also convince those girls that they have to perform femininity in such a narrow way, is this a net win?" Janet Stemwedel **

Recently a debate was ignited as a result of the Carnegie Science Center offering workshops through the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts in which each organization offered their own brand of science. Now, from what I know about science, it is a very broad subject that includes many sub-categories for the taking. When we think of science we might think of things like astronomy, physics, botany, chemistry, biology, geology. Well, cast your eyes on this and take a moment to let it sink in:

 

These were the workshops offered to boys and girls. Let's break it down: boys got to choose between EIGHT DAYS of a variety of different classes while girls didn't get a choice. Their sole offering was THREE HOURS of something called "Science with a Sparkle" which is categorized as science related to cosmetics (or "glamology" as it has been sometimes called) and certainly does not sound like something to be taken seriously, especially when listed adjacent to the likes of chemistry, robotics, engineering and astronomy. Note that none of the terms for the boys were changed (astronomy could also be named "Science With a Sparkle"). 

As is often the case, social media and other outlets caught wind of this and a conflagration ensued. Many were appalled at the lack of options for girls. One of the main reasons cited for the blatant imbalance was that girls just don't seem to be interested in the more traditional sciences. The goal was to draw girls in with "real word problems" they can relate to so building a workshop dealing with those pesky cosmetics and makeup (sometimes lipgloss is just too glossy and needs to be toned down) was the obvious choice for girls 8-12.

In response to all of the public blowback, Carnegie attempted to assuage critics by saying things like “any child – boy or girl, Scout or not – is welcome to join in on those programs.” But take a look at their website where it clearly says NO BOYS ALLOWED - GIRLS ONLY WORKSHOPS" on the "Science with a Sparkle" page. And, while perhaps the Boy Scout page doesn't specifically say "BOYS ONLY," I sincerely doubt girls/parents will hop on over there to sign up. You know, because it's for "BOY Scouts." Nowhere does it say, "GIRLS ARE WELCOME."

Some say it's benign--that there's nothing wrong with "sparkly science" if it lures girls into STEM. The argument being that if that's where girls are right now, we have to meet them there. To be honest, I don't think there's anything wrong with recognizing a category that could be deemed more appealing to some girls and maybe even boys (and there is science involved in cosmetics), but there is a deeper reality here that some are missing, which is that by continuing to act as if this is the way all girls are, we are actually pushing them further away from STEM by creating seemingly separate but [not] equal paths to things like science and technology. Is there room for the feminine in science? Of course. Is this the way to go about achieving equity? I don't think so. Invariably, the broader question that must be answered is why we are willing to set such low expectations when it comes to girls. Why do girls need ploys and special terms and boys don't?

Let's take a second to break this down in terms of what offering "Sparkly Science" for girls is really saying to both boys and girls:

  • Girls need words like "shiny" and "sparkle" to be interested in things like science.
  • Science for girls is relegated to those industries, like cosmetics, that perpetuate the idea that their worth is tied to their looks.
  • Girls are very different intellectually from boys.
  • Girls' options are limited; therefore, so is their potential.
  • Boys have a multitude of choices.
  • Girls wouldn't make it in "real" science.
  • All girls are the same.
  • There is no space for the non-girly girl who is shut out of both options.
  • There is no space for the boy who might be interested in the cosmetic industry.

 

Here is a simple fix that the Carnegie Science Center could have done to remedy the obvious split between boys and girls: they could have simply combined both scout organizations workshops listed together and included the October 11th "Science with a Sparkle." That way nobody would have been excluded and girls and boys would have been free to take whichever appealed to them (it wouldn't have looked so ridiculous either). Perhaps mostly girls would have gone for the makeup science, but maybe some would have been interested in weather. (Maybe they could have called that "Hair Elements." You know, because weather determines if they have a good hair day or a bad hair day.)

For the record, I am two hundred percent against the notion of "separate but [not] equal" messaging and marketing to kids and don't believe that girls will suddenly start swarming STEM subjects because they took ONE workshop about makeup. I simply can't and won't accept the status quo that says "sparkly science" is what girls want and that boys are better suited for the traditional engineering and science tracks. After all, there is a reason for the predicament we find ourselves in. It's not hardwired. It is spoon-fed. Boys are confident in areas of STEM because they're not discouraged from it--they're not told from birth that it might be better if they go another route. It's a vicious cycle that must be broken--we can't just continue to say, "girls just aren't interested." I don't believe that for a second. What I do believe is that they don't even know they could be interested. Throwing our hands up in the air saying "it is what it is" is not the answer. 

If what I am saying seems extreme to some--then so be it. If extreme means treating girls like they have the intellectual capacity to be interested in more than cosmetics, call me radical. It just seems to me that with the recent surge in girl empowerment messaging (for instance the "Like a girl" campaign by Always), we still continue to understimate the real power and ability of girls and that makes me angry enough to sound like a broken record. 

To those who defend "sparkly science" (while admitting that separating science by gender is probably not a good idea) I say we don't need to defend sparkly science. We don't need to defend a culture that sets such low expectations for girls. We don't need to defend huge corporations whose sole goal is to make money from marketing separately to kids. No, we don't need to defend any of that. We only need to defend girls. Not just girls who like sparkly science. All girls. And we need to start doing it now.

 

**From "Some reasons gendered science kits may be counterproductive" published in Scientific American