EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign to encourage girls’ interest in STEM was controversial from its launch last September, but now they’ve really taken the biscuit to end all biscuits by awarding their #PrettyCuriousChallenge prize to a boy.
Before we go further, I have to emphasise that this is not the fault of the boy, Josh, at all. Nor is anyone saying that he didn’t deserve the prize he was given. That’s not the question. The question is, why was a competition run as part of a campaign to encourage girls into STEM open to boys at all?
To understand just how appallingly EDF Energy have mismanaged this entire campaign, we have to go back to September last year when EDF Energy announced their Pretty Curious campaign, and a supporting “study” that they said they’d done. From the Independent:
A UK-wide campaign is being launched to inspire teenage girls to pursue science-based careers after new research revealed how a third don’t think they are clever enough for such jobs.
EDF Energy polled* over 2,100 pupils aged between 11 and 16 to find 32 per cent of young girls don’t think they have the smarts to become a scientist – despite the subject being one of their most-enjoyed (28 per cent) and incurring the best performance rate in at school (38 per cent) in the last academic year.
*Total sample size was 2,167 children aged 11 to 16, who were in Key Stage 3 or 4 in the last school year (2014/15). 1,127 were boys and 1,040 were girls.
Now, the study results weren’t out of line with other such work, but nevertheless, it’s always a bit suspicious when a company releases ‘research’ that just happens to back up a PR campaign that they are launching at the same time. Curious to see how the study was conducted, journalist Kate Bevan asked EDF Energy to share their data and methodology so that it could be examined. They never did share that info.
A bigger problem was the name, “Pretty Curious”, for which EDF Energy were strongly criticised on Twitter and in the media. The very phrase “pretty curious” creates a relationship between girls’ physical appearance and their interest in STEM, a relationship that should not exist. Add to that the fact that the campaign website featured articles about women working in fashion and make-up, the link between attractiveness and curiosity is reinforced.
Women are too often judged on their appearance, and girls in particular are vulnerable to body shaming, being constantly exposed to unattainable ideals of beauty via the media. The association of science and beauty created by the campaign name both reinforced the idea that one must be beautiful to succeed, and created a new association, that you must be beautiful to be in science. This is incredibly corrosive, and meant the campaign might alienate girls who are interested in science but don’t consider themselves pretty.
EDF responded to the criticism on Twitter, reassuring critics that it “purposefully chose the word ‘pretty’ to tackle the stereotype head on and create conversation around what is a very real societal issue”.
“We knew the name would attract attention and chose it in order to raise awareness of the campaign, which is aiming to address significant under-representation of women in STEM,” a spokesperson for EDF added via email. “The lack of women working in STEM is a critical issue for us. Whether one likes the language or not, the issue facing the UK is real, and we are determined to use our business to be part of the solution”.
What frustrated me about this response was the assumption by EDF Energy that a conversation needed to be created at all. There are already plenty of individuals and groups working on finding solutions to what is a complex and deep-seated problem. Not only are we always having our own conversations about it, those conversations go back decades, even centuries. But rather than listening to those of us already working in the field, EDF Energy decided to put PR first and ignore the ways in which they could contribute to the community.
I was also frustrated by their idea that it would be in any way beneficial to create a controversy around girls and women in STEM. We already have enough people online who take an unnecessarily adversarial approach towards our work, and who try to undermine women’s contributions to STEM. We really don’t need a manufactured controversy as well.
Another major problem with EDF Energy’s plans was that they were very short term. Again, from Wired:
The Pretty Curious campaign is due to hold three events in the UK, encouraging girls to take part in activities including coding, 3D printing and laser cutting. EDF also recruited several female ‘role models’ who work in STEM careers — a chemical engineer from EDF, a cosmetic scientist with her own line of cosmetics, a computer scientist who created her own app and a TV presenter with a master’s degree in biochemistry.
We know from 30 years of trying to increase the number of girls studying physics that one-off interventions do not work, because over those 30 years the percentage of girls studying physics hasn’t changed. If short-term interventions like #PrettyCurious made a difference, we would have solved the women in STEM problem decades ago. But whilst some of the girls who took part in EDF Energy’s events might have individually been inspired to carry on studying STEM, it’s just a drop in the ocean. There are 5.4 million girls under the age of 14 in the UK, so inspiring even a few hundred is not enough.
What we really need is a major cultural shift, and that means long-term work tackling the attitudes of teachers, parents and children alike. It’s about getting more women on TV and in the media as experts and figures of authority. It’s about combatting the subconscious bias that marks girls down, that tells girls ‘no’, that they should do something ‘more appropriate’. It’s about understanding the evidence that we have gathered so far, learning how to apply those lessons, and changing our approach whenever new evidence shows us that we need to adjust.
Three events and a website is not going to achieve that. We need to be in it for the long run. For decades. Maybe for centuries. Certainly for as long as it takes.
So, where are we at, now, five months after the initial furore about this ill-conceived, arrogant, tone-deaf campaign began? Well, amazingly, EDF Energy have managed to trump even their terrible campaign launch with a truly breathtaking campaign finale: Their Pretty Curious Challenge has been won by a 13 year old boy.
The Pretty Curious campaign’s stated aim was to encourage girls to engage with STEM subjects. And yet the Pretty Curious Challenge was open to both boys and girls, and a boy won.
This is a fail on so many levels. Firstly, Marketing 101 includes the lesson that you must always know what your message is and you must always stay on message. From the beginning, the #PrettyCurious message was “Girls! Get involved in STEM, it’s fun!”, and that’s a message I have no quarrel with. But extending participation to boys rather undermines that message, and when a boy wins, it says “Girls! You will always come second to boys!”, which is not at all what we want them to hear.
EDF said that while its Pretty Curious programme is still aimed at girls, the UK competition was later opened up to all 11 to 16-year-olds.
It continues to share the same website and branding as the girls’ scheme.
The BBC understands that the decision had been made to open the competition up to both genders in the interests of fairness, and that the contest attracted “a couple of hundred” entries.
Following three events held in the UK for girls last year, the contest was extended online and made available to boys as well.
So, let’s just recap: A campaign aimed at girls is opened up to boys in the name of “fairness”, when the whole point is that girls are not currently treated fairly and need encouragement to study STEM. How on earth does EDF Energy square that circle? It makes less than no sense.
It also raises some interesting questions: Why was the competition opened up to boys? How many entries came from boys and how many from girls? How does EDF Energy define “fairness”? And how does opening up the competition to boys fit in with their stated campaign mission? Was it that they didn’t get enough entries from girls? And if so, what else could EDF Energy have done to increase participation without opening up the competition to boys? How do you think the girls who engaged with #PrettyCurious, having been told that it was specifically for them, feel about a boy winning?
The whole thing is a total fiasco, and throughout it all EDF Energy have been condescending, patronising and arrogant. Here are a few of their Tweets from today, which show them again failing to understand the problem with their campaign, or why people are angry. Instead of addressing the issue, they simply double down:
The sad thing is, it could all easily have been avoided. EDF Energy’s social media team said last October that they had spent 18 months researching this project, however not one person that I know who works with girls/women in STEM was approached by them. Any one of us would have been happy to act as a consultant, and to help them find a better premise upon which to build a campaign. I’m pretty sure that would not have been difficult.
But worse, by not engaging with the community, EDF Energy lost the opportunity to learn where their money could better have been spent. There is very good evidence that one-off interventions like Pretty Curious do not work. They do not address the core problem, which is a complex one made up of cultural, societal and psychological components (at least). Ultimately, the money spent on this project has been wasted.
Had they engaged with the community, we could have pointed them in the direction of projects that are working towards creating the right kind of change, and that have the necessary longevity and experience. There are a lot of organisations working on these issues, and many of them are working very effectively at a grassroots level with very few resources. A program of sponsorship would not only have produced better results, it would also be better for EDF Energy, showing a willingness to work with the community, instead of against it.
Instead, we get what is not just a publicity stunt, it’s a damaging publicity stunt, damaging to girls interested in STEM and damaging to EDF Energy’s reputation.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and the #PrettyCurious story doesn’t have to end this way. When Intel had to publicly apologise after becoming embroiled in an anti-woman online campaign, they realised that they had to do something urgently about diversity. They pledged to spend $300 million to increase diversity, said The Verge:
At the time [of the apology], the company said “Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. And, diversity is an integral part of our corporate strategy and vision with commitments to improve the diversity of our workforce.” Today, [Intel CEO Brian] Krzanich elaborated on that by saying Intel’s own internal goal was to reach what he referred to as a “full representation in all levels” in its workforce by 2020. That not only includes its rank and file, but at the executive level as well.
So come on, EDF Energy. You can do better than #PrettyCurious, you can do far better. There are many, many organisations that support women in STEM that you could fund and work with, including my own, Ada Lovelace Day. You don’t even have to pledge $300 million. A tenth of that would be a good start.