The European Union recently put out a music video to encourage girls to go into science -- and recalled it after a chorus of complaints. The video was a viral disaster.
The critics who said the video was sexist and superficial had a point. The content looked more like Sex in the City than Respect in the Lab. Young girls in mini-skirts are shown prancing in four-inch heels and blowing kisses at test tubes, while a man in a white lab coat looks admiringly at them.
The goal was to reach out to the 13-to-17 demographic in time for female students to take foundational courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in school to launch them into STEM careers. That's a laudable goal. But the video message came across as "Wear short skirts; girls are just decorative" rather than "Take Algebra and prepare for the thrill of achievement in STEM."
The rest of the EU campaign "Science -- It's a Girl Thing!" was actually quite good. A tab on the website called "Six Reasons Science Needs You" reminds girls that the challenges our world faces need to be tackled by all of us -- challenges like health and well being, food security, secure and clean energy, smart transport, climate action, and innovative/secure societies. Those problems aren't pink or blue.
To provide positive role models for girls, the EU site also has video profiles of accomplished and attractive scientists: Ilaria Capua, an Italian veterinary virologist; Yael Naze, a Belgian astrophysicist; Joanna Pawlat, a Polish engineer in material science; and Nadia Berloffa, an Italian student in engineering.
And there are descriptions of science dream jobs like robotics engineer, ocean energy engineer, fuel cell engineer, aerospace engineer, biochemist, naval architect, environmental geriatrician, agronomist, zoologist, renewable energy engineer, immunologist, neuroscientist, marine biologist, hydrologist, environmental engineer, and climatologist. Those are not only exciting jobs, they will be among the higher-paying jobs of the future, which means the pay gap between men and women will get greater if girls don't gravitate toward STEM studies.
I'm hoping the recent video fiasco doesn't cause the EU to give up its three-year outreach campaign because the gender gap in STEM fields is a serious problem in the United States as well as Europe.
The need for many more girls to prepare for STEM careers is real -- according to the Commerce Department, women constitute 48 percent of the workforce in the United States, but hold just 24 percent of the STEM jobs. What's more, women with a STEM degree are less likely than their male counterparts to work in a STEM occupation; they are more likely to work in education or health care jobs, which pay less.
No doubt about it, there are women going into STEM fields today who are glamorous and brainy -- to cite just one example, the new Miss Utah, Kara Arnold, has a magna cum laude degree in Biochemistry and was just accepted into the medical program at the University of Utah. She's deferring med-school for one year while she travels throughout the state of Utah promoting her platform to young girls, "Discover Your Potential -- Step Up with STEM."
That kind of campaign could help convince more young women that science is an attractive option, but they will need academic skills to succeed. What will really help reduce the gender gap is expanding sound education approaches like National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI) to reach more female students.
NMSI's Advanced Placement Training and Incentive Program has dramatically increased the number of high school girls taking and passing AP math and science courses in participating schools. In the last three years, APTIP has produced an impressive increase in passing scores for female students on AP math and science of 144 percent.
That's the kind of success we need to multiply across the U.S. In the long run, it is substantial programs like Advanced Placement that will convince young women that having a "beautiful mind" is key to future happiness and success.
Dr. Mary Ann Rankin is President and CEO of the National Math and Science Initiative.