Friday, December 10, 2010

Does Science Need Cheerleaders?

Apparently some think so.  Literally.

The science blogosphere was abuzz a short while ago with postings about science cheerleaders: neurodojo, scicurious.  For those unaware of the topic, this is a group of scientists/cheerleaders whose goal is to motivate people to learn about science and perhaps become scientists themselves (citizen scientists).  The movement was initiated by Darlene Cavalier, a scientist and former professional cheerleader, who "founded the Science Cheerleader to unite the citizen’s desire to be heard and valued, the scientist’s growing interest in the public’s involvement, and government’s need to garner public support. The Science Cheerleader serves to get the conversation going, rally the troops, solicit views from all sides and change the tone of science and science policy in this country."

When I first saw a link to a post about the phenomenon, I thought that it was about science communication--a favorite topic of mine.  Instead, it seems that this group is actually cheering, with pom-poms and sexy outfits:  

As you can see, the science cheerleaders are composed of several attractive women who have some training in a science field and who also happen to have been cheerleaders at some point in their lives.  Randy Olsen, scientist-turned-film-maker, helped the group create the video above. 

There are several aspects of this issue that I've discussed previously on this blog: Dress Code, The Librarian Version of Angelina Jolie?, Are All Female Scientists White, Skinny and "Hot"?, A Shot in the Arm: Challenging Hollywood's Portrayal of Women in Science, The CSI Effect--Good for Female Scientists?

The cheerleading idea is one that warrants a bit of discussion.  So here's my take on the idea of "science cheerleaders"--as implemented by the group in the video.

What image does the cheerleader model convey?

First, it's important to point out that traditional cheerleaders are not actually participating in the central event being cheered, i.e., they are supporting a sport and the (typically) male participants in that sport.  One can argue about whether their activity is athletic, important to the team, conducted by both sexes... or not.  The point is that cheerleaders are on the sidelines and are peripheral to the main event. Why select such a model to promote science and especially women in science?

The cheerleader model conveys the subliminal message that the role of women is to lead cheers for the real scientists: men who are on the playing field smashing atoms or doing other amazing things.  That's obviously not the intent of these science cheerleaders, but I'm afraid that that is the message their approach sends.  One wonders what the young children in the video think about these science cheerleaders.  All they see is a group of attractive women dressed up like real cheerleaders, shaking pom-poms, and prancing around.  The women are not shown in labs or out in the field doing science.

Having the cheerleaders talk about their careers in science doesn't counteract the negative image their skimpy outfits convey.

What is the cheerleader message?

I understand that the women who have formed this science cheerleading group are trying to show that women can be scientists and also be attractive and sexy.  It's true that scientists have an image problem and are often viewed by the average person as nerdy, awkward, non-athletic, and fashion-challenged.  I'm not saying that scientists are like this--just that the general public has this inaccurate image of us. Most people have never met a scientist, and so their perceptions about what a scientist looks like and how they behave are molded by what they see on TV and in the movies.

But do we need to go to the other extreme to counter the unattractive, nerdy image of scientists?  The opposite end of the spectrum is beautiful, sexy, and cool.  Is that a superior image to strive for?  The cheerleaders for science seem to be taking a similar approach as the creators of the "Rock Stars of Science".  That idea is to show that scientists can be just as cool as, say, rock stars.  The select group of scientists, including some Nobel Laureates, are depicted alongside real rock stars.

Huh?  Why would someone who has done something scientifically awe-inspiring need to be shown alongside a rock star, whose societal accomplishments pale in comparison?  I would be insulted that my image would need to be enhanced by association with some celebrity.

I get the basic idea behind this effort, but I think it is an ineffectual one.  Does anyone really believe that the average fan (in awe of celebrities, athletes, or rock stars) will be fooled by such a campaign to promote scientists?  Will the rock star approach really change how the public views scientists and science?

Is there another way to change the public's perception of scientists, particularly of female scientists?  I think so.

What image should (women) scientists convey?

Let's first consider what would be an appropriate image for a scientist.  Not a rock star.  Not an athlete.  Not a sex symbol.  Not a cheerleader.  How about just a regular person who happens to have a talent for science?  Someone the average guy could have a beer with?

Part of the image problem for scientists, maybe the central problem, is that most people find it difficult to visualize scientists as normal people with normal lives, families, and hobbies--in other words, just like them.  They also cannot see themselves in the role of a scientist, partly because no rational person would choose to be a nerd (or whatever image they have in their heads).  Therefore, they cannot empathize with someone who is a scientist.

So I can't see how promoting an image of scientists as rock stars or sexy cheerleaders is going to improve the perception of scientists by the general public.  If anything, it will make us look like silly wannabes.  Most adolescents would laugh at the idea that a scientist is just as cool as a rock star or famous athlete.

For women in science, attempts to convey a sexy or physically attractive image can backfire and sometimes send the wrong message (see Dress Code).   My approach (after years of trying various "looks") is to dress and behave so as not to call attention to the fact that I'm a woman (or anything other than a professional and a scientist).  Dress in the same general style as the male scientists (business casual, jeans, or whatever style your (successful) colleagues' tend to select) and appropriate to the occasion.  Note that this doesn't mean you should dress like a man or be unfeminine.  You can even work out a fashionable style that is your own "look".  The idea is not to go to any extreme--too sexy, too high-fashion, too sloppy, etc.    

Be careful what you wish for.

If the rock star/cheerleader idea is to attract more young people to science, is the portrayal of scientists as "cool people" going to work?  Will it attract the type of person who is going to be able to succeed in science?  Or will it attract people who are only interested in the "image".  Those of us who deal with students every day know that a percentage are just not cut out for it.  They have unrealistic expectations, are unaware how difficult and often tedious the work is, and/or don't have a real passion for science.  I think we need to convey a realistic image of science--one that is exciting, rewarding, and interesting--but also that it takes a person who's ready to work hard at it and who can deal with setbacks.

We don't need more students who will ultimately become disillusioned and drop out.

Toward a better model for the (female) scientist image.

To attract more people to science, especially women, I think it takes more of us showing that we are normal people who happen to be very curious about the world we live in---curious enough to make a career of it.  I made a list of ideas/images that counter some of the stereotypes surrounding scientists:

--We like to figure things out and use the information to make the world a better place.  This image counters the stereotype of the scientist as only focused on an esoteric science question and uncaring about the world around them.

--Interviews with scientists who are excited and passionate about their work sends a positive message and counters the stereotype of scientists as cold, logical Spock clones.

--Images of scientists who are average-looking, but normal, happy, and confident people. Counters a major stereotype of scientists as odd, peculiar characters who are unpopular.

--Images of scientists doing their work along with colleagues, students, and other people sends the message that we don't work alone in our ivory towers (another stereotype).

--Scientists have hobbies, just like other people.  Some of us draw or paint; others are wine connoisseurs; still others are good athletes.  Counters the notion that scientists have no life or skills outside the laboratory.

--Some of us get to travel to fascinating places and see and do things that most people don't. Such images counter the stereotype of the scientist confined to a cold, clinical laboratory.

--Images of scientists doing research, teaching, or outreach in different environments shows the variety of places and jobs that a science career can take them.

--We also have families--who are supportive of our careers and proud of our accomplishments.  I've worked alongside colleagues who did their field research while pregnant--such images belie the notion that a science job means a choice between career and family for women.

--Many scientists are religious, and their work in science affirms their beliefs.  The stereotype of the scientist as non-religious is apparently a big turnoff for many people.  Even scientists who are not religious can have high moral standards that are consistent with the beliefs of many religions.

--Women often prefer careers in which they can help other people or society and think that science does not offer such opportunities.  Examples of how scientists directly and indirectly help society (biomedical research, restoration of ecosystems) will help counter this false perception. 

Programs that expose adolescent students to the scientific process are excellent ways to break down stereotypes, but can be expensive, time-consuming, and reach a limited population.  Promoting positive images of scientists in the media and on the internet can potentially reach a larger audience.

I imagine you can think of many more images that would show what it is really like to work in a science job.  In fact, if you have any images you particularly like and don't mind showing, send them to me ( and I'll post them here (can be anonymous, but be sure to get permission from anyone depicted in a photograph).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"But do we need to go to the other extreme to counter the unattractive, nerdy image of scientists? The opposite end of the spectrum is beautiful, sexy, and cool."

The message we should be promoting is that science is open to all, nerdy and sexy alike.