Reinventing the Outreach Program Wheel

Why, oh why do I have to be hatin' on the good works that SciCheer wants to do for the young girls of our nation?

Reader of the blog theshortearedowl suggests

This campaign is like IT Barbie – it normalises STEM as within the range of things that “girls do”, for the (let’s be honest) majority of girls who haven’t yet heard that it’s ok to do things that girls “don’t do”. Maybe it’s good to take this opportunity to lay out the reasons why cheerleading is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong in gender relations; but as for the campaign itself – there’s room for more than one approach?

And bsci says

I just can’t figure out what this group of people using their voices to encourage people to stick with science is a bad thing.

Darlene of SciCheer says

These women spent most of their time talking to people about science and chatting to young girls and boys about careers in science and engineering (and why it’s important to understand math and science).
The response has been overwhelmingly positive (particularly from moms). You certainly don’t have to agree with the approach.

I certainly don't, and I'll tell you why.  I'm not going to start by laying out the reasons why cheerleading is symptomatic of everything that is wrong in gender relations.  If that isn't obvious to readers of this blog, they are reading the wrong blog, and need to spend more time at Feminism 101, perhaps starting with sexual objectification, the male gaze, and internalized sexism.  From the post on the male gaze, we read:

...the male gaze enables women to be a commodity that helps the products to get sold (the “sex sells” adage that comes up whenever we talk about modern marketing). Even advertising aimed at women is not exempt: it engages in the mirror effect described above, wherein women are encouraged to view themselves as the photographer views the model, therefore buying the product in order to become more like the model advertising it.

I have no doubt that the individual women involved in the SciCheer project are wonderful people who care about science, have great careers as scientists or science communicators, and would like to encourage young girls to go into science.  But none of this exempts SciCheer from the institutionalized and structural forces of the patriarchy we all live with day in and day out.  Little girls looking at grown women dressed in tight shorts and cleavage-baring tops shaking pom poms for science are encouraged to view an aspirational image of womanhood as the male gaze views desirable fuckable women, therefore buying the product in order to become more like the cheerleaders advertising it - and therefore obtain the attentions of dudes who adore sexxay hott bangable women.

The product in this case is somewhat obscured.  It would be difficult to parse out, without research that might anger some parents and possibly run afoul of some ethics, whether (1) SciCheer motivates young girls to aspire to careers in science because they see it as a new, previously unknown route to becoming hott bangable women, or (2) for girls already interested in science, SciCheer taps into their socially programmed understanding that hott bangable is their destiny and reassures them that science doesn't make you ugly.  In either case, it is still not clear whether exposure to SciCheer would make them more likely to stick with the STEM career track.  Given what we know about stereotype threat, it seems just as probable that exposure to SciCheer could have the opposite effect (see more on that below).

To answer bsci's comment, there's nothing wrong with a group of people who used to be cheerleaders using their voices to encourage kids to stick with science.  The problem is that they are not using their voices.  They are using their bodies.  Oh, yeah, they are using their voices, too.  But the bodies are speaking as well, and no matter what message the voices are sending, the bodies are sending a different one.  The bodies are sending a message that resonates in the strongest possible manner with the very worst of everything those little girls (and boys) are getting from the minute they pop out of the birth canal.

To respond to theshorteearedowl, the campaign does not normalize STEM as within the range of things that girls do.  It sexualizes the women who work in STEM as still meeting patriarchal hott bangable norms - and if you don't, hey, why don't you?  Are you one of those women that STEM made ugly?   One of those women who went into STEM because you were too ugly to get laid?  Went into STEM because you are a dyke? Or STEM turned you into a dyke, and that's why you're ugly now?  (There is research showing that many male students in engineering believe several of these ridiculous statements to be true.) Why have you let yourself go so, when clearly it is possible to be hott bangable for science?  Your first duty, as a woman, is to be hott bangable.  If science is getting in the way of that, maybe you love science just a little too much.  Think of the dudes, why don't you. IT Barbie is not about normalizing STEM for little girls.  IT Barbie is about selling product.

I have no doubt the response to SciCheer has been positive.  People love cheerleaders, and they love seeing things that reinforce existing gender norms and roles, and that don't threaten the patriarchy.  Advertisers know that sex sells, which is why they use it for everything.  Cosmopolitan, a very popular magazine that is marketed to women, features a different airbrushed hott bangable woman on its cover every month.  Those cover photos are made to be viewed by women, to remind them what Real Femininity looks like.

Here's the thing that really cracks me up, though.  Some of the defenses of SciCheer are that we need multiple approaches, and that it's great to have all these biographies gathered online, and look at all the attention they are getting!  Why, it's as if no one ever thought of any of this stuff before!

People, STEM programs with a particular emphasis on gender equity comprise a whole entire freaking field of professional endeavor.  There are entire conferences devoted to presenting the latest research findings, looking at what works best with the very youngest kids, with the middle school crowd, with high school kids, bridge programs between senior year and matriculation in college, retention programs in undergrad, the special needs of grads/postdocs, and institutional transformation to address faculty and administrator recruitment/retention.  The REAL science cheerleaders have been working in this field for DECADES and have developed effective programs based on evaluation and testing, through projects that involve collaborations between research universities, HBCUs, K-12 school districts, government labs, industrial sites, and science museums, and that have involved scads of practicing scientists and engineers through their institutions and professional organizations.

The program that I described at K-State is just one of hundreds of similar programs all across the U.S.  The Society of Women Engineers conducts programs all year through its many local chapters, and often does so in collaboration with the Girl Scouts.  At the WEPAN Knowledge Center site, you can find links for many resources, including for K-12 programs.  The Making The Connection program includes downloadable presenter's guide, activities, and newsletters. The presenter's guide includes a wealth of research-based advice on conducting an effective presentation to kids in grades 3-12.  It also includes this statement:

Instructors are much more likely to compliment female students than male students. Although they may be meant as compliments, these statements can send the message that a woman’s appearance is more notable than her academic abilities.

How helpful is it, then, to present an outreach program that is built around the core of hott bangable cheerleaders being publicly hott for science?

It isn't necessary to plead the case for multiple approaches, or the value of an online collection of biographies.  Multiple approaches exist across the land; online biography collections abound.  The one unique thing that SciCheer adds to the mix is scantily clad women.  The Making The Connection guide tells us that "Students in the classroom will want to know something about you as a person and as an engineer. Revealing a little about yourself will help you to establish a rapport with the students."  So it might be great, in the context of a classroom visit where you are involving kids in hands-on activities and answering their questions about your job, your struggles with your college studies, people who encouraged or discouraged you along the way, and positive and negative experiences you had in science and math classes, to include the information that you were once a cheerleader - along with other information about your hobbies and interests. But emphasizing the cheerleader and hott bangable body is going to derail your message.

From the Reducing Stereotype Threat website:

Encouraging individuals to think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity can also attenuate stereotype threat effects. Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, and Mitchell (2004), for example, showed that women encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics...Encouraging individuals to think of characteristics that are shared by ingroup and outgoup members, particularly characteristics in the threatened domain (Rosenthal, Crisp, & Suen, 2007), also appears to preclude the development of stereotype threat in conditions that normally produce it (Rosenthal & Crisp, 2006)... Reducing the salience of a threatened identity appears to serve a protective function, supporting continued high performance for those individuals already identify with the domain in question.

And furthermore

Data provided by Stricker and Ward (2004; see Danaher & Crandall, 2008) suggest that merely moving the standard demographic inquiry from the beginning to the end of the test would improve performance of women on the AP Calculus Test. By instituting this procedural change, it is estimated that an additional 4700 female students would receive AP Calculus credit annually.

It is difficult to imagine how an emphasis on appearance and extreme stylized heteronormative femininity could operate to reduce stereotype threat for young girls considering STEM careers, when all research strongly suggests that the opposite strategy is called for -  to reduce the salience of the "threatened identity", in this case gender, in the context of STEM.  Furthermore, the invitation to identify with a non-unique female group role - cheerleader - is again in opposition to research showing that calling to mind an individual's "valued and unique characteristics" reduces stereotype threat.  (And see Ed Yong's excellent post which relates to this topic.)

STEM outreach programs have been around for decades, as I've said.  There's a lot of research available to show what works, how to do an effective presentation, and how to reduce stereotype threat.  Maybe you haven't heard of any of those programs, or are unaware of the associated sites, and the ongoing research.  None of it is as sexy or attention-getting as reinventing the outreach program wheel with pom poms, that's for sure.

31 responses so far

  • Cara says:

    Another great post, Zuska.

    I'm thinking that the people who don't get this are hearing the overt message without really understanding the underlying goals.

    The verbal message, "we need more women in science," doesn't flat out state that we need the world to change so that women can have an equal opportunity to do science without having their asses grabbed or their accomplishments minimized.

    It's like trying to reduce sexual assaults on women by making women responsible for protecting themselves--it's bass-ackwards and doesn't work, unless the true goal is to keep women from thinking deeper about why things are the way they are.

  • Anonymous says:

    Let's be honest, indeed.

    This campaign is like IT Barbie – it normalizes shaking your booty in tiny outfits as within the range of things that “women do,” for any woman who still thinks it might be ok not to be hot and bangable.

    (I loathe this word bangable, but it is just so apt in this case).

  • skeptifem says:

    I fucking hate stereotype threat. Its maddening. I am proud of teaching myself math despite it, but christ. Every little roadblock was like "what if my brain just cannot do this and the dudes are right and I am inferior?". Blah.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Hey, I *said* I was waiting to get ripped apart 🙂

    I'm still exploring these issues to myself; I *hate* the concept of cheerleading, and indeed Barbies, but I try to be open to alternative approaches. If the people who came up with the science cheerleaders would have been swayed by it when they were kids, then there will be others. The patriarchy isn't going to fall overnight - so what matters is reaching girls now.

    First, I don't find it useful to just say "This campaign is like IT Barbie – it normalizes shaking your booty in tiny outfits as within the range of things that “women do,” for any woman who still thinks it might be ok not to be hot and bangable." The WHOLE OF SOCIETY says that right now. Until that message starts disappearing from at least most other sources, is it really necessary to lambast a program with good ambitions for STEM outreach for girls for playing on it?

    Second, I'm sure there are many other, better (or at least more worthy) science outreach programs for girls. But how many are being talked about across half the internet right now? And I think the negative coverage is even better - kids are not just sponges, and if they get the buzz and then read the criticism, they get the best of both.

    This is all thought experiment, of course. I'm an empirical girl in an empirical world, and I'll take data over speculation any day.

    • Zuska says:

      Okay. But the data shows that stereotype threat is real, and that approaches that do NOT emphasize gender and appearance for women are effective in promoting long term interest and success in science. They aren't talked about about over half the internet because the difficult long term day in and day out work that is necessary to get actual long term results isn't sexy. Scantily clad women are sexy, and that sort of thing does get talked about over half the internet. But there is absolutely zero data showing that bouncing around half naked is an effective form of outreach for K-12 girls, or that it would encourage K-12 boys to view women as competent thinking human beings rather than as sexxay meat packages available to satisfy their desires on demand. Why is this so difficult to understand?

    • Isabel says:

      " Until that message starts disappearing from at least most other sources, is it really necessary to lambast a program with good ambitions for STEM outreach for girls for playing on it?"

      Yes, let's keep spreading the message until *someone else* does something about it. Exploiting sexist messages-what a brilliant idea. The possibilities are endless.

      "And I think the negative coverage is even better "

      Yes it's especially fantastic that kids can go to the website and learn what hot chick-hating shrews feminists are!

    • Carol says:

      That hott bangable babe message is going NOWHERE if people "play on it" (cuz everyone else is doin' it - which isn't quite true since there are a fair few people talking about the problems with the message, providing their data along the way). Do you not see how the cheerleaders, far from being an innocuous 'hanger-on' of the patriarchy, are actually reinforcing it?

    • Cara says:

      Until that message starts disappearing from at least most other sources, is it really necessary to lambast a program with good ambitions for STEM outreach for girls for playing on it?

      Yes, it is.

      And the "data" you seek is all around us. That's why we're reading Zuska's site instead of "Hott Bangable Chikz dot com".

      Furthermore, your idea that the kids will get the "best of both" (if they see the science cheerleaders and then see the hairy-legged manhaters criticizing the idea) really isn't how these things play out. If all it took was a rational argument to eradicate sexism it would have been long gone by now.

    • lucy says:

      Stereotype threat has been consistently replicated in laboratory studies, and alternatives to the current system have also been tested. I just heard a talk on this subject so I thought I would share.
      Boys do BETTER on things like SAT scores, while girls show POORER performance, when asked to indicate gender before the exam, as opposed to after - suggesting that reminding a male that he is a male improves his score (and similar effects race, etc). The results suggested that significantly more girls would pass the AP tests if they were asked to indicate gender after the test instead of before. A small number of boys would not pass if asked at the end.
      This research was presented to the moderators of the AP tests and they claimed the difference was too "negligible" which I think is code for "don't hurt teh boyz"

  • usagi says:

    One of your single best posts, Zuska.

    People, STEM programs with a particular emphasis on gender equity comprise a whole entire freaking field of professional endeavor.

    Repeat, loudly, as often as necessary until people quit assuming that pom-poms are a panacea.

  • becca says:

    But Zuska- all that silly research based stuff isn't any FUN and it isn't REAL, not like cheerleading...

  • Claire says:

    "Reduce the salience of a threatened identity" is my new favorite phrase. I have no idea where I'm going to use it but it's perfect.

    You've put your finger right on why the message "Everyone says girls can't do science, and you're a girl! Girl girl girl. Look how female you are! But guess what, you actually CAN do science, even with that gender of yours" is problematic. Especially with the addendum "And here's how you're supposed to look while you do it."

    If you're going to fight against the stereotype, referencing the stereotype in the message is not the way to go.

  • Restructure! says:

    I don't find anything wrong with the Science Cheerleaders, because I thought they were scientists who happened to be cheerleaders, not role models for young girls. In this world, there exist scientists who are also women who enjoy sex, and scientists who are also mothers.

    If these scientists bring attention to the fact that they are female and sex-positive, or female and mothers, it does not mean that they are suggesting that the only way for a woman to be a scientist is to be sexy and mothering. This is just human variation within the group called "scientists". It is perfectly fine for female scientists to have hobbies that have nothing to do with science, like knitting or baking.

    Otherwise, we would have the situation we have with women in tech, where a woman who wears a skirt is seen as less competent with computers than a woman who wears pants and stereotypically masculine clothing.

    • Cara says:

      Funny how that went right to cheerleader = liking sex and its opposite stereotype, feminist = anti-sex.

      • Restructure! says:

        I know that most feminists are sex-positive. I understand the difference between sex (good, for people who are not asexual) and sexual objectification (bad).

        But how do we know that the Science Cheerleaders are trying to be role models to young girls, instead of dispelling the stereotype that cheerleaders are vapid? Cheerleaders are actual people with complex personalities and lives, not walking stereotypes who deserve to be dehumanized by people who identify with high-status occupations and look down on low-status occupations.

    • Restructure! says:

      All right, let me clarify. The context where I first encountered the Science Cheerleaders was watching the video, a while ago. When I first saw them, I thought some internalized misogynist crap including the concept "bimbo", but when they explained their science degrees, I realized that I stereotyped cheerleaders as being unintelligent and vapid.

      Personally, it was another sharp reminder that I, a female geek who cares nothing for sports, held negative stereotypes about feminine women and cheerleaders. I was glad that the Science Cheerleaders challenged my assumptions about gender and intelligence.

      I strongly disagree with this:

      I’m not going to start by laying out the reasons why cheerleading is symptomatic of everything that is wrong in gender relations. If that isn’t obvious to readers of this blog, they are reading the wrong blog, and need to spend more time at Feminism 101, perhaps starting with sexual objectification, the male gaze, and internalized sexism.

      It really isn't obvious to me why cheerleading is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with gender relations, and I'm pretty sure I'm not reading the wrong blog, and I understand Feminism 101. Since it isn't explained because it's supposed to be obvious, I'm going to assume that some feminists feel cheerleading is wrong because they look down on markers of femininity (and class). Stereotype threat was brought up, so this is probably at least part of the criticism, that cheerleading is bad because it marks women as feminine/female.

      But if cheerleading is inherently bad because it's a reminder of femininity/femaleness, then My Little Pony unicorn soldering irons are inherently bad for the same reason. Yet Mary flaunting MLP soldering irons at Geek Feminism Blog is not a message directed to young girls saying, "Hey young girls, you can use a soldering iron, but only if it is a My Little Pony unicorn soldering iron, since you're a girl!" The point is probably to f**k with people's assumptions about gender and technology.

      • Isabel says:

        Your assumptions are wrong. You are still equating cheerleaders with something else in a totally unsubstantiated way. You've backed off the cheerleading = enjoys sex idea, but you've replaced it with cheerleaders=feminine. You are still dealing in stereotypes. And why would they be doing this whole initiative with kids if the idea was dispel stereotypes about a very specific adult activity. Seems like an awful lot of trouble if the only goal is that. They are using "sexy" to sell an idea to kids. Darlene admitted as much.

        Pro cheerleaders exist to be sexy eye candy that supports the higher paid male players. You really don't get how that is symptomatic of a sexist society? Finally, they are dissing feminists right on the web site! You don't have a problem with that either? Imagine an initiative that featured stereotypical "gang-bangers" in low slung pants and lots of bling who were also (low-level) scientists and who mocked the civil rights movement and the NAACP as un-cool.

        • Restructure! says:

          I never equated cheerleaders and women who like sex. I mentioned women who liked sex as an analogy, as another example of a way of being that can be seen as conforming to stereotypes (women as hyper-sexual) just as being a mother can be seen as conforming to a stereotype, and being a cheerleader can be seen as conforming to a stereotype. I didn't really understand Cara's comment until your comment.

          I didn't know they dissed feminists right on their website. I also thought that talking with kids was only part of what they did, and they talked to adults as well. But since they dissed feminists, I don't support the Science Cheerleaders, but I still support people's right to have intersecting identities (especially those that appear to be contradictory), and the right of women and men to act in a stereotypically "feminine" manner without being thought of as inferior.

          Yes, there is something very problematic with pro cheerleaders existing as sex objects to entertain and support the higher paid male players. However, I don't see cheerleading as inherently tied to the male gaze, since there are cheerleaders for all-girls sports teams playing at an all-girls school and such.

          • tinfoil hattie says:

            Do you also know that NFL cheerleaders are paid $75 per game, and that they have to pay for their own uniforms?

  • skeptifem says:

    omg tinfoil hattie where did you find that out? Do you have a link to the info anywhere?? Thats sooooooooooo ridiculous!

    Restructure! - Femininity is different in every society, what makes a woman feminine by mainstream standards has a lot more to do with what groups have power than anything else. It certainly has nothing to do with what women are actually like. When poor women were tan and muscular (from working outdoors physically all day), femininity was defined as pale and plump. Rich women died from using silver on their skin to try and look paler. The shift went the opposite direction after awhile, as the nature of work changed. There are well known examples of crippling beauty practices like neck rings or foot binding. You can see the standards change with time and power structures, even regionally within the same country or state. Contemporary femininity in the US, the kind cheerleaders represent, has a lot of troubling elements. One is the focus on youth and submission. A womans age is considered a negative thing, her experience counts for nothing because she is an object that becomes less valuable after use. Her personality is troublesome unless it is complementary to whoever wants to fuck her- its pesky to have someone with a will of their own in a society that values male dominance. Another negative element is a focus on white supremacy, where skin color and white looking features are valued the most. Even some black communities have a color caste system within them, based on internalizing white supremacist ideas about beauty and value. The final layer of problematic elements is that of class- only women of a certain class can spend the time and money to do all the beauty rituals that are required to look like a cheerleader (hair, nails, make up, shaving, hours exercising, all the way up to plastic surgery). Those are the unstated points in Zuska's post, I think.

  • Peanut says:

    Tinfoil Hattie's not kidding.

    See Dallas page for info about pay, uniforms, weight requirements, and more!

  • Comrade Svilova says:

    It's been said before, but the point stands repeating: cheerleading isn't presented as a part of a varied an interesting biography. It is specifically in the context of "you can be smart AND pretty." Or: "even though you're smart, you can still be P2K compliant."

  • Isabel says:

    Well, that link states that they are provided with uniforms. They only need to cover upkeep! However they are paid $50. per game and *must* attend 2 to 5 rehearsals per week at no compensation at all. Hmm, I wonder how that is even legal? And why aren't they compensated more? Makes no sense.

    • Zuska says:

      Why aren't they compensated more?
      1. Women's unpaid/underpaid labor makes the world go 'round.
      2. They are compensated in the glory of having been anointed hot enough to be a cheerleader.
      3. If they don't like the terms, there are a skazillion women lined up behind them just waiting to be objectified for a pittance. Some of them would probably pay for the privilege.
      4. They don't have a union, UNLIKE the players.

  • HFM says:

    I don't strongly object to the cheerleaders, but I think they have the wrong audience. Send them to cheer camp instead. Those girls have already decided to value themselves in terms of their feminine appeal; for them, it might actually help to see patriarchy-compliant women who are following their interests into science.

    As a girl, I didn't hear a lot of "girls aren't good at science". Not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't the norm, and there were a lot of other messages going the other way. What I did hear, all the freakin' time, was that spending too much time on science would make me less feminine. And of course, since I was neglecting my duties as a hawt, dumb, and nonthreatening female, I would never get a man, and therefore my life had no meaning. (Why yes, it *did* piss me did you know?)

    Since I liked science, and my parents supported that, I would have been one of the young women at something like this Science Day. But I had already picked science over femininity; useless teenage boys could shove it (somewhere else). I didn't care if I was fuckable or not, so a message of "don't worry, you can be smart *and* attractive!" would not have helped. Other young women weren't raised that way, which isn't their fault.

  • cf says:

    The problem I see with these genderized STEM cheerleader programs (and most of the research) is that they refuse to look at the most likely and most disturbing reason women stay away from male-dominated fields.

    Consider these two statistics:

    A Department of Justice study found that one in five college women will be either raped or sexually assaulted by the time she graduates. This study was based on reported incidents only. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that the primary focus of university investigations into these incidents was to shut the victims up, and let the perpetrators finish college.

    The President of Bryn Mawr claims that women who attend womens' colleges are TWICE as likely to major in STEM fields.

    So...what's really going on here?

    Rape culture at coeducational campuses, pure and simple.

    It's the 500-lb gorrilla in the room that nobody wants to talk about, or even see.

    All the rest of these studies and research projects and conferences and programs are just misdirection.

  • becca says:

    @cf you bring up important points, but I just don't follow your reasoning. Not to *excessively* play up the stereotype, but I don't think men in STEM fields are known for being... terribly... gorrillaish?
    Also, women who go to Bryn Mawr may be a particularly interesting subset of women who may or may not be particularly representative.

    Do I think men are keeping women from majoring in STEM? Yes, in the thousand pinprick kind of way and sometimes more overtly in very ugly ways. Do I think rape and other sexual assault on college campuses are huge problems? YES. Do I think those things are necessarily connected? not really. I just don't see women in STEM being *more* likely to be raped than women in e.g. social work or nursing. I think the rape generally happens outside the scheduled classtime, so it matters less who your classmates are and more who lives in your dorm.

    • Zuska says:

      becca makes good points. In addition, rape as an explanatory theory cannot account for the variation in access/recruitment/retention between STEM fields, nor explain things like why the numbers of women in vet med and medicine and business and law increased so dramatically over the past several decades, but no so in engineering. Or why, in vet med, the enrollment of women is huge, but numbers of women on the faculty remain low, and why women in vet med remain clustered in certain areas of practice (as is also the case in medicine). Also doesn't explain why, in chemistry, percentage of t-t jobs awarded to women each year is lower than expected giving the percentage of PhDs awarded to women each over the past decade or so. and so on and so on. One can't over simplify, and there isn't just one answer, and one has to look across disciplines and sometimes even across institutions to see what is going on.

      • Cara says:

        I thought cf was being more metaphorical than literal, because, yes, rape is one of the "thousands of pinprick ways" that women are kept from being treated like people. "Rape" actually works pretty well as a catchall term for the ways in which women are terrorized into not threatening the status quo. Sure, disapproval isn't rape, but it's still a precursor to the unspoken "or else" that accompanies any attempt to keep the wimmenfolk in line.

  • meerkat says:

    If I had any response to a presentation like this SciCheer thing (if they had had such a thing when I was the target age), it would probably be to conclude that I was too ugly to do science!