This post is written by Nia John, a science communicator based in South Wales. She also volunteers with the Young Women’s Trust, a feminist organisation to advocate for economic justice for young women. Nia loves nothing more than spending time at science festivals around the world. Find out more about Nia and her work on her Twitter and Instagram pages.
If you’ve spent any time on social media this week, you’ve probably seen the now infamous ‘Fatima ballet advert’. For those of you who have somehow missed this government-backed advert – which the Culture Secretary described as ‘crass’ – at first glance it seems pretty innocuous. It’s a photograph of a young woman getting dressed in her ballet clothes, with the caption ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ and underneath, in brackets ‘she just doesn’t know it yet’.
The advert was originally released in 2019 as part of a series, and recently resurfaced on social media and, against the backdrop of Chancellor Rishi Sunak encouraging people to retrain out of their suddenly ‘unviable’ industries, the advert has been roundly condemned. Plenty of much smarter, funnier and better informed people than me who actually work in the arts will tell you what exactly is wrong with this advert; but I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about it from the point of view of a person whose job it is to get young people excited about computer science.
Firstly, what I do like. Obviously, an advert aimed at a young woman designed to encourage her to take up a career ‘in cyber’ is great. I’m sure Fatima would be a top-notch software developer, and the Cyber First project looks like it has some bursaries and advice if she does decide to take the programming plunge. It’s also nice to see this sort of advert aimed squarely at someone in the arts – convincing people that actually computer science is creative and interesting is a large part of my job. The number of people who commented that this adverted was condemning Fatima to a life of digital drudgery shows that we have a long, long way to go in showing people just how interesting and rewarding cyber careers can be.
Which brings us on to my first point – careers, or rather the lack of them, in this advert. The advert refers to ‘Fatima’s next job’ rather than her ‘next career’. This distinction is important because it’s implying that being a professional ballet dancer is ‘just’ a job. She might worry that ‘ballerina’ is something that her new colleagues might look down on as a passing fancy, rather than the culmination of years of training, dedication and practise. But it also suggests the same thing about cybersecurity or web design – jobs, sure, but nothing more. Rather than being seen as a possible exciting new chapter, the start of challenging career, we’re left feeling that Fatima’s next job in cyber will just be another dull job in a long line of blah.
Secondly, why ballet? Of all the professions, ballet is a terrible choice to put up against computer science in this context. Not because there’s anything in particular about ballet dancers that would make Fatima a poor candidate for a career change, but because of how we think of ballet in our collective consciousness. Being a professional ballet dancer isn’t just a job, it’s one of those dreamed-about-it-since-I-was-a-little-girl, actually-it’s-a-calling type jobs. Fatima hasn’t accidentally stumbled into an audition and impressed with her plucky can-do attitude; it’s a highly skilled, competitive and desirable role.
The way the advert is set out, the sinister and vaguely threatening ‘she just doesn’t know it yet’, the tag line urging her to ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ – (you want to shut her down first?) – none of this frames her new job in cyber as a good thing. There’s a distinctly melancholic, time to hang up the silly tutu and get a ‘real’ job sense to the whole situation. Grow up, Fatima.
Fatima’s next job as an ethical hacker could also be skilled, competitive and desirable, but you’d have no idea based on this advert. Is studying or retraining for a cyber career a ‘safe, sensible’ option? Absolutely. The money will be good, there should be plenty of positions available, heck it’s probably a lot easier than being a prima ballerina. But if you want young people like Fatima to really consider this sort of work for their future, we need to explain that these aren’t just the smart choice, but a choice they won’t regret making 25 years in the future when the alarm wakes them on yet another Monday. These jobs need to be sold as something that you might actively want for yourself, relevant, interesting and worth doing on its own terms.
This advert could so easily have been saved with a few tweaks. Fatima is creative, dedicated and not afraid of hard work – perfect attributes for a programmer. The fact is Fatima is going to love her next career in cyber, but thanks to this advert she just doesn’t know it yet.