Hey Lynx Apollo! Women are astronauts too

Images courtesy of NASA and Commons: RIA Novosti

If you know me, you probably know how much I want to go to space, so of course I was excited to hear of a competition that might enable that dream to come true.

Indeed I was. I signed up to the Lynx/Axe Space Academy as soon as I could, before it hit the mainstream with adverts and marketing. I begged people to vote for me. Not something I’d normally do, but this is space we’re talking about… all’s fair etc.

As I went to share my entry on Facebook I was offered some pictures to go with my post. Me in an astronaut suit, some generic Lynx Space Academy branding, or pictures of a (presumably) male astronaut with a hot girl swooning. Hmm. Not quite sure that’s what space travel is about. I clicked next, then recoiled in greater horror as the next image consisted of the hot girl’s clothes all over the floor of the again (presumably) male astronaut.

Look, I know that Lynx (Axe in the US), is predominantly a male brand. I know that their advertising generally consists of massive sexual stereotypes, I even understand why they use such tactics. They obviously get results (whether the same can be said of their antiperspirant, I wouldn’t know). But here’s the thing that gets me, advertising and cheap stereotypes aside, you’re messing with SCIENCE now. Don’t do that.

As if scientific disciplines don’t have a legacy of sexism inherent in them already, now we have a global, big bucks advertising campaign to reinforce the idea that science is a male domain. In case you weren’t aware, women are astronauts too – not just drooling airheads trying to bag ourselves a high profile guy in a space suit.

It reminds me of when I first got excited about space and I talked to my neighbour about it. “Oh!” She said, eyes wide, “you want to marry an astronaut?”.

“No.” I replied, somewhat firmly. “I want to BE an astronaut”.

What decade are we living in? Really? Does this brand think it is alright to suggest that men get to be astronauts and women are just eye-candy? Because I don’t think that’s okay. The tag line for the competition is “Leave a man, return a hero”. I’m just wondering which man I should leave.

Jokes aside, the way this competition is marketed is damaging. Not only did it make smart friends of mine assume that only men were eligible to apply, but it adds to an increasing “blokeification” of science.

There are high profile science shows at the moment, Wonders, Sky at Night, Science Club, Infinite Monkey Cage. That’s great – more science! Yay! But when you look at them, it’s all getting very blokey. Where are our female role models? It’s not that smart, engaging women don’t exist, it’s just that they don’t seem to be welcomed into the fold. Mary Beard’s experience with Question Time is enough to make any woman think twice about braving TV. I dared have an opinion about Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life show last night and was instantly dismissed as “just jealous” then told I should front Loose Women because all I do is moan. This doesn’t strike me as constructive, and neither does the Lynx advertising campaign.

The TV spots show a pretty woman who needs rescuing from a fire, cue good looking male fireman to save this “damsel in distress”. Then an astronaut appears, and our fickle beauty changes her affections to him: “Nothing beats an astronaut, ever”.

Well I’d like to see a remake of that advert, but as the astronaut raises their helmet it turns out to be Cady Coleman, Tracy Caldwell-Dyson, Peggy Whitson, Valentina Tereshokova, Sally Ride, Eileen Collins, Soyeon Yi, Samantha Cristoforetti, Nicole Stott… (I could go on) and the fireman goes swooning over to her instead! (In fact, if you’ve some video ninja skills let’s make it happen.) Women are more than sex objects, women can be smart, and women can be astronauts too.

Axe Apollo - women are astronauts too

You might think I’m making a fuss over nothing, perhaps say it’s just a humorous skit to sell deodorant. But I think it shows there is still a wider problem in society. If we’re going to encourage women to follow careers in science and engineering we need to stop the undercurrent of “girls are pretty trophies, and boys are brave astronauts” etc.

As for this Lynx competition, let’s make a stand. I’m still in the running and I’d love your vote. Not only because I would cherish a chance to get to space, but also because I’d love to get enough momentum to make the people behind the campaign stop and think for a moment about their sexist stereotypes.

I’m not the only one out there that feels affronted by this. I’ve been contacted by @Scientelle on Twitter who is supporting the #astrogrrls who have entered this competition. So come on, let’s make some noise and get heard.

I thought we’d moved on from the early days of the space programme when only macho male military test pilots got to be astronauts – let’s not step back again.

—–

UPDATE

Samantha Cristoforetti confirms she's both woman and astronaut

Statement from Lynx UK (January 29th, 2013)

As was suggested by a commenter on this post, I got in touch with the press office of Lynx UK. The lady I spoke to seemed genuinely shocked at the idea that people might find elements of the campaign sexist (which in itself stuck me as a little odd), but was quick to point out that the competition had gone through their legal department. She provided me with the following “brand response”:

The Lynx Apollo campaign is meant to be a humorous play on mutual attraction illustrating the impact the product will have on the opposite sex.   It is designed to be exaggerated and light hearted and is absolutely not designed to demean women in any way.

As an advertiser we strive to be responsible, the competition adheres to strict internal and external guidelines.  Women can enter this competition, if they were to make it through to the second round they would not be at any disadvantage.

Personally I’m not sure that saying it’s “meant to be light-hearted” is enough to excuse it. Light-hearted sexism is still sexism and still feeds into what society as a whole deems acceptable. I’m really uneasy with a global advertising spend that gives the impression that women are just pretty things to be won. For those of you who say “it’s aimed at men, a female brand could run its own competition”, that’s quite right, but I can’t think of any brand that would promote something for women so obviously at the expense of men. Can you?

Statement from NASA (30th January, 2013)

I genuinely feel strongly about this issue so I brought this post to the attention of NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. I know that NASA put a lot of effort into ensuring their education and outreach programmes reach people from diverse backgrounds. He read my email with concern and put me in touch with the Rebecca Keiser, the NASA representative to the White House Council on Women and Girls who kindly provided me with this statement from NASA:

“Even today in 2013, many images of women (and stereotypes of men) in the media show that we still have a lot of work to do regarding the role of women and their importance to fields like STEM.  We need to do as much as we can to project a much more realistic and positive image of women, as well as encourage more girls to enter into STEM fields.  We are working hard at NASA on this effort and we hope to do even more.”

Well said. I’m pleased (and indeed quite honoured) that Charlie Bolden took my email and this issue seriously. Perhaps Lynx could learn something.

UPDATE (05/02/13): National Restrictions and the Super Bowl advert 

Men Only

My friend (and fellow ISU alumnus) Carmen Victoria from Mexico pointed out that in the Mexican version of this competition only men are allowed to apply. This points to two problems in my mind. Firstly, that given the opportunity to exclude women, Axe/Lynx would choose such a course and secondly, that some countries don’t have the same rules to protect against discrimination that we have here in the UK. 

A bit of further sleuthing from good friend and space advocate Remco Timmermans showed that this male only restriction was not limited to Mexico. In fact Russia, Ukraine, Kuwait, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates join Mexico in making this a male only opportunity. Wow. Russia. Let’s just pause to think who put the very first woman in space – yep, Russia. What an awful step backwards. Thankfully this is not the case in the real Russian space programme where a new female cosmonaut candidate was selected at the end of last year.

The Russian International News Agency, RIA Novosti have written an article on their Russian language site about the fact female Russians are barred from entering this competition. With a bit of Google translate magic, the Russian Axe spokesperson can be roughly translated at this:

“In the offices of the company in different countries slightly different policy for selection of applications for the competition, but in Russia, the application of the girls are not accepted. Same situation in Ukraine, Indonesia, Mexico, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Globally, no such limit, but must be borne in mind that the AXE – a male brand”

Again, we’re back to this argument that I keep hearing “but it’s a male brand, what do you expect?”. In answer, I expect marketers to be smart enough to come up with original, interesting ideas, that don’t have to perpetuate old-fashioned stereotypes of women. I don’t think that “we’re aiming it at men” is an excuse for sexism. It’s a bit offensive to men to assume that the only successful way to market at them is to belittle women, isn’t it?

Super Bowl

As the Ravens and the 49ers battled it out on the field, millions of Americans settled down to watch the big game on television. When I was in the States when the game was on I remember there being a tangible level excitement not just about the game itself, but the adverts. Costing upwards of $4 million for a 30 second spot, companies pull out all the stops to make an impression. Axe knew this would be a great time to get an audience for their Space Academy contest, and of course had an advert for the occasion. Similar to the UK version, a helpless girl needs rescuing (this time from a shark), dotes over hunky male lifeguard, then ditches him for male astronaut. It doesn’t show the Axe product being used like their usual adverts would. There’s no reason they couldn’t have challenged existing stereotypes and still combined this with a space angle. How about having a female astronaut who picks the guy that just doused himself in Axe/Lynx? At least that would show their product actually doing something.

Like I said, Americans take their super bowl adverts pretty seriously. Seriously enough to merit posts on both Forbes and Discovery News. Check out the powerful post by Maha Atal at Forbes - who points out this is not just a case of sexism, but of failed advertising – and the super bowl space advert round-up by  Ian O’Neill at Discovery News.

We’ve got this ball is rolling – let’s keep it going.  As a study from 2012 sadly shows, there really IS an issue with “enduring cultural stereotypes about women’s lack of science competence that translate into biases into student evaluation and mentoring”.

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Follow me on Twitter as @SpaceKate and listen to my space flavour podcasts on Audioboo.

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