I am proud and excited to be writing this on the day after what could be the most significant scientific discovery of our lifetime. In case you missed it, scientists at CERN have confirmed the discovery of a whole new particle, which is mostly likely the long sought after Higgs boson. This is evidence of the existence of the Higgs field, an invisible energy that is thought to give most elementary particles mass.
This is the equivalent, for particle physics, of putting a person on the moon. It's a huge step towards understanding the composition of our universe, and the implications are profound. I have to admit I was a little bit overwhelmed by the announcement - not just the science of it, but the joy of it. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were live streaming the press conference. What made it even more meaningful to me was seeing Ms Fabiola Gianotti, lead physicist on the ATLAS project, standing up at the podium and addressing us.
To have a scientist of Gianotti's calibre and experience making crucial contributions towards such a momentous achievement, and being recognised for it, could not come at a better time. That women are not as engaged as men in hard scientific fields has been a long conversation. The latest effort from EU Commission (the European Union's executive body) to address this gender gap has been making waves recently, and not for any good reasons. The video, far from fixing the problem, actually exemplifies it.
I was never scientifically inclined at school; my love for the subject has flourished only since entering my twenties. High-school science certainly didn't help. I found my lessons uninspiring, difficult, and devoid of context. I didn't see a potential career path, and I certainly wasn't encouraged to explore one, even though my grades were decent. Despite all that, I love it now, and I am all for making science accessible and interesting to teenage girls. I wish it had been so when I was younger. But to suggest that girls will take to science if it's presented in the same way as a Barbie Dream Home is to greatly and unforgivably diminish us.
The ad is both patronising and false. It minimises the incredible hard work and the extraordinary rewards that such a career might offer. It appears as though those at the EU Commission agreed that young girls needed to be tricked into doing science by the promise that it will be glamorous, and that male lab techs will flutter their lashes at them. They might as well have suggested that a career in science is a good way to find a husband. What other motivation could we possibly have?
It may be tempting to laugh off, but this attitude is symptomatic of very real prejudices about women, the work we are capable of doing, and the heights we are capable of reaching. By not challenging simple and reductive gender stereotypes about clothes, boys and 'beauty', what are the chances that the more entrenched and damaging ones will ever be resolved? What kind of future is this ad really promising us?
If I had seen it as a thirteen year old, I would have found in incredibly alienating. In fact, any video addressing any academic interest in a similar way would have been unwelcome. I was not interested in make-up at that age, or clothes, hair, shoes or boys. The subjects that I loved at school - poetry, art, literature, history - were a refuge from the pressure of gender expectations that I could already feel settling on my young shoulders.
Do you know what would have engaged me? Speaking to me as a human being. Not as a girl, but as a person who - regardless of my other interests, whatever they might be - has an intellect and spirit capable of understanding the profound contributions science has made to our world. That is how we challenge the gender gap.
Fabiola Gianotti is a living example of why this advertising is both reductive and redundant. (So, for that matter, is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Athene Donald, and many other pre-eminent female scientists.) She has also spoken about the problematic way we characterise science: "Physics is, unfortunately, often seen as a 'male' subject; sterile and without charm or emotion," she told Cern magazine last year. "But this is not true, because physics is art, aesthetics, beauty and symmetry."
I agree with her, and I think the masculine characterisation of science comes from the same misguided place as this new attempt to feminise it. I feel that we would be doing all children a favour by re-evaluating our perception and presentation of science. It is, after all, equally damaging to young boys to push them into a famously 'emotionless' field of study as it is to assume girls will only like it if thereís makeup involved. Beauty and art are not inherently female characteristics, any more than logic and rationality are inherently male ones. And whatís more, science can be a wonderful combination of all of them.
That is what I felt, last night, watching Gianotti address the crowd from the podium. This is undoubtedly what Peter Higgs felt, as he shed a tear for the fifty years of work that had led to this moment. I like to think that we - though divided by age, distance, nationality, gender and experience - were in some small way united by our awe and appreciation in that moment. But as long as people assume that girls are not capable of understanding this, we will not be seeing more of them standing at these podiums.
Image taken from Marco Delmastrio's Photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons Licence