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Getting to gender equity: From the Oscars to science competitions

Comedian Chris Rock talked about not needing 'his' and 'her' acting awards. A British science competition begun just for girls became controversial when a boy won the top prize.

What do Oscars host Chris Rock and a British science competition have in common?

They're both courting controversy over gender equality.

Chris Rock’s suggested that the Academy Awards should get rid of "his" and "hers" acting categories. In the UK, some are railing over a boy being awarded the top prize in a science contest that was originally created for girls only.  

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In th UK, Pretty Curious – an energy company initiative based on the notion of getting girls interested in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – ended up delivering its top prize to a 13-year-old boy this week.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood Sunday night, Mr. Rock gave a nod to the #AskHerMore campaign for inspiring his remarks. The tag was created to raise awareness and get interviewers to go beyond asking stars about which designers they were wearing on the red carpet in favor of more substantive, less objectifying questions to women at the Oscars.

“Think about it,” Rock said in his Oscars telecast opening monologue. “There’s no real reason for there to be a man and a woman category in acting. There’s no reason! It’s not track and field. You don’t have to separate them. You know Robert De Niro's never said, "I better slow this acting down so Meryl Streep can catch up!"

Pretty Curious had previously drawn fire on social media for its use of “pretty” as an adverb in its video campaign where attractive little girls look into the camera and say “I’m pretty…” with a pause before the punchline “…curious about science.”

“Following last year’s Pretty Curious program, which aimed to inspire girls about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, EDF Energy launched a social media competition open to all children called the Pretty Curious Challenge,” responds Steph Aukstikalnis, external communications director for EDF Energy, to an email query on why the competition was altered. “One of the many EDF Energy initiatives aimed at inspiring young people, this challenge was an extension of Pretty Curious and aimed to help children understand the world of STEM and share their talents.”

Chess grandmaster Susan Polgar, who founded the first all-girl national chess tournament in the US – the Susan Polgar Foundation Girls’ Invitational 13 years ago, says in an interview that sticking with the all-girl format would have been more productive for retention of girls in STEM, not to level the playing field but to foster confidence and networking among girls and women in STEM.

“Girls generally feel more comfortable (up to a certain age) doing activities with others of the same gender,” Ms. Polgar says. “Therefore, an all-girls event usually leads to more participation.”

Heather Metcalf, director of for research and analysis at the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington, D.C., says in an interview that the EDF Energy "Pretty Curious" campaign, smacks of “pink washing.” 

“Unfortunately, this kind of recruitment strategy, especially when it comes to young girls and STEM is not uncommon,” says Ms. Metcalf. “There are lots of situations where we see marketing towards girls that focuses a lot on appearance.”

A case in point, says Metcalf, are chemistry sets marketed towards girls as a recruitment tool.

“They’re all about making fizzy bath balls, lip gloss, all beauty products as the kind of science appeal to girls, when really it’s just reinforcing these gender roles and stereotypes around appearance,” Metcalf says.

Camellia Moses Okpodu, research director and STEM educator at Norfolk State University in Virginia, says in an interview, “Although I think that it is imperative and important to have girls compete in an atmosphere where there is primarily girls, this can be fundamental and we don't want to stop at just gender specific competitions for either girls or boys.”

“We need to teach and expect the best idea to win, regardless of gender,” Dr. Okpodu says. “In an ideal world, if there was a way to be gender neutral, it would be the best way. However, that is neither realistic or practical."

Ciara Judge, a 17-year-old winner of the 2014 Google Global Science Fair, weighed in on the "Pretty Curious" 2016 winner, on her blog.

"To those criticising the idea that a contest to promote females in STEM would have a male winner, I ask: is allowing a girl to win by default really a way to promote girls in STEM?

There is no worse feeling on earth than feeling like your success is because of your gender, or feeling like to token female and I have been in that situation more times than I care to count."

But Metcalf says AWIS research shows that for adults, “There’s a high degree of bias that’s very resilient within the recognition of women in STEM fields.”

“Our [AWIS] research has shown that women are over-recognized for their roles in teaching and service and under-recognized for their scholarly and research roles,” she adds. “With respect to proportion and nominees in an award pool, men are eight times more likely to win a scholarly award than women. Without respect to proportion in the pool, men are two times more likely to win.”

Metcalf also points out that the creation of female-only awards “tends to make them marginalized and less valued awards.”

She concludes, “I feel like there’s still a lot of work to be done here, for sure.”

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