#PrettyCurious is pretty sexist

On Tuesday I became aware of EDF Energy’s new campaign to “inspire girls’ curiosity about science, technology, engineering, and maths”. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately – very unfortunately ­– the campaign is called Pretty Curious (#PrettyCurious). Here’s how I reacted on Twitter:

The next day, I got an email from Chris Woolston who writes the Social Selection column in Nature. He said he’d be writing about #PrettyCurious for his next column, and was considering quoting my tweet. He asked me to elaborate on my “beef” (as I put it) with #PrettyCurious and also, what positive things I saw in the initiative.

I replied to Chris at some length, explaining my “beef”, and the next day, his piece went live.

Screenshot 2015-10-04 11.57.49Here’s the bit with my quote:

James said in an interview that the idea behind the initiative seems misguided. “The assumption that all or even most girls are into pretty things and want to be pretty, and that it’s a potential mechanism to interest them in STEM, is sexism,” she says.

Because only one sentence of my email was quoted (not that I’d expect more) and more importantly because the paraphrase leading into my quote didn’t do a great job representing my position, I thought I would share my full email to Chris Woolston here:

I’m glad to hear this might be covered in Nature. It’s an important topic, that is, this inexplicable string of poorly (harmfully?) executed projects intended to help women in science but failing so blatantly, for example, the EU Commission’s “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”.

Anyways, here’s my ‘beef’ with EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign:

The name of the campaign is very clearly a play on words, that is, the dual meaning of ‘pretty’: 1) to a moderately high degree, 2) attractive, usually said of a girl or woman. That the campaign is about ‘inspiring girls’ curiosity about science, technology, engineering and maths’, it becomes clear that the idea is the campaign thinks ‘pretty’ describes, and/or appeals to, girls.

The assumption that all or even most girls are into ‘pretty’ things and want to be pretty, and that it’s a potential mechanism to interest them in STEM, is sexism. Gender stereotypes like ‘girls like “pretty” things and want to be “pretty”’ are both wrong and harmful. By reinforcing these stereotypes, the campaign adds to the constant messages that girls receive that they should be pretty, and should want to be pretty, and it connects prettiness to girls’ career aspirations.

The intent and much of the content of the campaign is great (‘events for girls will learn how to code, use 3D printers, and laser pointers to create technological solutions’, ideas for hands-on with science at home, etc.), which is why it’s such a shame their branding is so problematic. It would be easy to fix: ‘pretty’ is only used in the campaign’s title and literally nowhere else on the campaign’s web page. My hope is that EDF Energy will act on this early criticism and change their campaign title.

In addition to the ‘pretty’ thing, EDF’s selection of role models is problematic. Before I explain let me be very clear that from what information I have access to, the four women EDF have selected so far as #PrettyCurious role models are admirable, strong scientists, excelling in their fields and blazing new career trails, and, on an individual basis, they do indeed seem like great role models for young women. But it simply cannot be an accident that two of the four role models selected by EDF are working in fashion and makeup, which fits oh-so-nicely with the ‘pretty’ thing. A third role model is a TV presenter which is also a job for which, at this time, still tends to be occupied by conventionally attractive people. As such, the selection of role models reinforces the problematic aspects of the campaign’s name. That said, I want to reiterate that I think the name of the campaign is the primary problem. If they changed that, the selection of role models wouldn’t be much of an issue, in my opinion.

I still hope EDF Energy might be willing to change the name of their campaign (and also that they might consider supporting (i.e. funding) existing grassroots projects that are already doing the kind of good work they clearly think is needed). Unfortunately, they seem to be digging in and conveniently ignoring the fact that “pretty” hurts.


Note: I would have liked to assemble the literature on the harm done by gender stereotypes, the all-kinds-of-wrong that is gender essentialism, and stereotype threat for this post, but I’m facing some big grant deadlines so I just don’t have time today. Please do share relevant links in comments if you are so inclined, though.

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2 thoughts on “#PrettyCurious is pretty sexist

  1. Elizabeth Moon

    I had more problems with the name, because both “pretty” and “curious” have multiple meanings. You’ve covered “pretty curious” as “physically attractive” + “interested/wanting to learn about.”

    In the context of pretty being meant as “moderately” or “sort of”, then “curious” could mean either “interested in, wanting knowledge about” or “peculiar/odd”. Moderately or somewhat curious about things suggests lukewarm, not serious interest…again hinting that girls do not have any inherent, natural serious interest in anything other than “girls’ stuff.” It suggests that the most that can be hoped it to pique girls’ interest a little bit toward STEM, and the best approach to that is via (by the spokespersons) fashion, cosmetics, and celebrity…typically considered the things girls are “naturally” interested in, like sports, military, and sci-celebrity are considered to be natural interests of boys. It’s still sexist, but with a different emphasis.

    The worst of the cross-contaminated meanings of the two words leans on curious’s use to mean odd, strange, peculiar. I had a humiliating experience freshman year in college, when a male faculty member, asking why I had declared a science major, interrupted my explanation (which started with “I’m curious…”) to say that he could see _that_ (clearly intending the “peculiar” definition) and laughing as he asked if I had any other reason. For some people it still is “sort of peculiar,” in the strange, unfathomable way, that a girl would be interested in science. That only a sort of peculiar/odd/strange girl _would_ find such an occupation appealing.

    When two words with ambiguous meaning are placed together, readers who know the various meanings of both find the combination puzzling, even worrisome–what did the writer actually mean? In this case, the juxtaposition calls out the less favorable meaning of each, because of the pairing chosen. “Pretty” meaning attractive goes with concrete nouns: pretty house, hair, nose, dress, garden, flower. “Pretty” meaning “somewhat” goes with abstractions and with adjectives: pretty good, pretty bad, pretty soft, pretty sensible, pretty curious. A girl may be in there somewhere, but she’s become a vague misty concept, maybe attractive, maybe peculiar, maybe who knows what.

  2. Pingback: On #womeninscience and footwear | In Baby Attach Mode

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