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The 'women-in-STEM-wash': diversity in science appropriated for corporate branding

Although female participation in science and engineering has won recent high-profile victories, the appropriation of diversity for corporate branding and neoliberal agendas is creating the gender equivalent of green-washing

The struggle of female participation in science and engineering has won a few high profile victories this year. And I don’t just mean the new LEGO pieces.

The new Presidents of Imperial College, Royal Society of Edinburgh and Royal Academy of Engineering are all, for the first time, going to be women. To put this in context, the Royal Society (the plain old original one, based in London), for all its various efforts on diversity, has a fellowship that’s still 94% male. It’s worth celebrating that the equivalent academies for engineering and Scotland, and a leading science-focused university, will be lead by women.

But such stories shouldn’t mask other issues we might have with science and engineering as it is currently constituted, including other aspects of these women’s careers and identities. Alice Gast, soon to head Imperial, is a Board Director of Chevron. Ann Dowling, the in-coming President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is a non-executive director of BP. The gender’s changed but other problems remain.

Drop out of the boardrooms for a moment, and there’s increasing work to encourage women into so-called STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). But much of it also increasingly comes wrapped in the sort of corporate logos which could inspire further critique.

Vodafone, for example, might find the various aims of “STEMinism” easier if they paid more tax. As Georgina Voss notes of ‘the Year of Code’, pictures of George Osborne playing computers with schoolgirls looks good, but the rhetoric of the whole programme is built around industry needs, not liberation.

To give credit where it is due, BP avoids patronising its audience as they invite you to “discover BP's feminine side” for International Women’s Day. No pink. No cupcakes. Play on BP’s microsite and you are greeted with a series of photos of smiling women holding cards outlining stories from their careers. Hani Baluch, a petroleum engineer from the UK, says her interest in chemical engineering was sparked as a child, watching news about the Middle East and realising what a crucial role the oil industry has to play in society. Samantha Hayes, a geologist from the US, admits that as a keen environmentalist she never thought she’d end up working for the oil and gas industry, but the resources staff are offered, as well as “spirit of innovation and commitment to doing the right thing” won her over. We also learn about how much BP invests in people, their charitable and environmental work as well as the challenges and opportunities of working for the company.

It’s probably also worth noting that around half the people profiled in this package are non-white and reflect a range of educational backgrounds. BP is clearly signalling its commitment to diversity in more ways than one. The oil industry’s feminism will be intersectional, even if it does also smell a bit of bullshit.

BP are not alone in utilising feminism for a bit of PR. E.On also sponsored IWD, their logo was next to BP’s, above a quote from Richard Branson extolling the virtues of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (whither the event’s socialist roots). On the eve of IWD 2013, BAE’s engineering director Simon Howison issued a statement expressing concern over how very low that still was. Indeed, BAE have some history of work with women in engineer projects, and have some impressive senior female staff (Jayne Bryant, for example). Shell sponsor the Women of the Future awards, EDF have recently run adverts in New Scientist for women engineers and L’Oreal have a long-standing commitment to women in science, from educational projects to fellowships.

We’re all quite familiar with green-wash; welcome to women-in-STEM-wash. It’s a great corporate social responsibility tactic. Who couldn’t argue with women’s participation in science? It gets lots of attention and support from academics, industry, politics and the media. It can be especially useful for organisations which might be seen as exploitative of ideas of femininity (e.g. L’Oreal) or whose more negative images are tied up in particular ideas of masculinity (e.g. the arms trade, parts of the energy industry). Women might not be patronisingly characterised as somehow magically non-aggressive or connected to nature, but the associations can still be hinted at, and decades of work put in by women in the peace and green movement turned against itself in the process.

As the BP International Women’s Day campaign suggests, it invites you to “think again” about the industry even if, when you really think beyond their picture gallery, there might not be that much new to see. You might also find Hani the petroleum engineer’s story of being inspired to join the oil industry after watching news stories about the Middle East slightly shocking.

Above all though, it offers companies like L’Oreal, BP, BAE et al a larger pool of labour. As Ed Daniels, chairman of Shell UK, told the Telegraph last year “If you want more engineers, then not accessing half the population feels like a really bad idea.” The government seems to have listened. I’ve heard an almost identical line was repeated by Vince Cable; talking to a small group of women in engineering I was invited to participate in. It was repeated by business minister Jenny Willott last week too, who has also previously complained that the segregation of toys for boys or girls hurts the economy, as if children’s play is primarily preparation for the workforce.

When women in science and engineering projects come branded with corporate logos, it is worth asking what exactly is being done to science and engineering in the process. No scientific labour - female or otherwise - is there simply to be tapped to suit narrow industrial interests. A feminist critique of science and engineering used to be about radical change. It wasn’t just about finding space in boardrooms for a few women or finding labour to fuel very narrow industrial interests. It was about offering a brighter view for how science and engineering might be organised, and what it might do.

But maybe the feminisms of science and engineering were always destined to serve neoliberal agendas. After all, the most powerful female scientist was probably Margaret Thatcher. As historian Jon Agar has argued, the political ideology that later became known as Thatcherism had roots in her work as an industrial scientist, not to mention her role in the 1970s as education secretary where she played a key part in the radical shift towards a language of the market to discuss science policy. Other visions of science and engineering are available, and we owe it to prospective scientists and engineers to ensure that remains clear.

 


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