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.
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.
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.