An avalanche of hostile comments on social media sites in particular has been directed at the release on June 21 of a one-minute video called "Science. It's A Girl Thing!"
It looks one part girl-group music video and one part cosmetics commercial, with three miniskirted young ladies in heavy make-up dancing and posing with lab equipment and mathematical proofs as a male scientist watches intriguingly. A tube of lipstick forms the "i" in "Science."
NOTE: One day after our original post, the European Commission's video appeared to have been removed from YouTube. The following is an authentic version of the same video posted by alba502:
The YouTube video (now disabled) was drawing a 97 percent "dislike" rate among users late on June 22.
The "Science: It's a girl thing!" Facebook page -- which like the website offers a lot more than just the video -- had meanwhile been "liked" by 174 people.
In the face of the critical maelstrom, Michael Jennings, the European Commission spokesman responsible for research, science, and innovation, says that he doesn't find the video sexist. He notes that it is just a small part of a 2.7 million-euro ($3.35 million) campaign to produce more female scientists.
"We know from having tested this with a lot of target groups and focus groups and -- even anecdotally testing this -- the group that we really need to reach and is very difficult to reach, the teenage girls, do overwhelmingly like this video," Jennings tells me. "It speaks their language. It is something that attracts them, interests them, and gets them interested in going -- hopefully -- to the website and seeing the stuff that is on there which is really telling them about science as a career."
Women make up more than half of all students in Europe but represent just one in three career researchers (32 percent). Jennings says the hope is that this video and the rest of the effort can help to reach out to girls who haven't yet discovered their interest in science.
"There is a lot of negative commentary on this on various social media," Jennings says, "but some of [the commenters] are saying, 'OK, it got me to go to the website, and if I look at the website it is good and it is proper science and proper women in science and that is what the campaign is largely going to be about.' So I hope we don't reduce it to one video."
It's the second time this year that the European Commission has invited controversy over a video promoting its activities. In March, a television spot promoting further EU enlargement was taken down after a storm of protests accusing the makers of racism.
In that case, a blond woman was approached by three men of different ethnic backgrounds using different threatening martial-arts skills before she multiplied, forming a circle around them. The video ended with the men appearing pacified and her multiple forms turned into the 12 stars of the EU flag.
It certainly doesn't take a scientist to recognize that the furor over the official teaser for the European Commission's "Science: It's A Girl Thing!" is likely to grow before it subsides.
Jennings himself has tweeted as much:
@flimsin Commission doesn't really do irony. Hope was to get young people onto site. That seems to be happening!— Michael Jennings (@ECspokesScience) June 22, 2012
But good intentions in Brussels aside, here are some of the critical tweets that were making the rounds about the video via the #sciencegirlthing hashtag:
@bengoldacre At least they had the models wear glasses. 'Cos, y'know, glasses = nerd *facepalm*— Sean Rovaldi (@ThePurpleGooroo) June 22, 2012
This is meant to get women into science? I don't think I giggle vapidly enough for my chosen professional. newstatesman.com/blogs/martha-g…— Michelle McKinney (@skuldintape) June 22, 2012
How to make science a girl thing: 1) Be a girl. 2) Do science.— Amber Ying (@diabola) June 22, 2012
It's worth noting that the video has spawned a #realwomenofscience thread. And one commenter has offered hope of another sequel to the current kerfuffle:
We've had #sciencegirlthing, can we expect #scienceguything next? Where 3 overweight blokes gasp at the science behind beer & internet porn?
— Dean Burnett (@garwboy) June 22, 2012