Via Joerg Heber on Twitter, a great post on gender divisions in STEM by Athene Donald:

As children try to work out their personal identities, the difference between ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ is as fundamental and omnipresent as it gets – and they receive the clear messages that collectively society gives out about the attributes implicitly associated with that distinction. Inevitably they are likely to ‘hear’ the message that boys are noisy, into everything and generally vigorous and enquiring, whereas girls are ‘expected’ to be good, docile, nurturing and passive. Parents may do all they can to counteract these expectations, but others around (including other children as they mingle more at playgroup and school) are likely to be less scrupulous. Parents may themselves be unaware of their own implicit associations between gender and stereotype. If you don’t believe you personally suffer from this, try taking one of the Implicit Association tests I have mentioned before on this blog (for instance here and here). Even most practicing female scientists, myself included, still find an unconscious tendency to associate words associated with science more with men than women. Every time I do the test and find I still do this, I get dispirited. I feel it is no surprise if random members of the population do this if I do, despite my deep-seated belief that women and science really do mix.

So, we have a society which creates cultural hurdles for girls who want not to cherish their dolls but take them to pieces to see how they work, or for girls who scorn to play with pink Lego representing a veterinary surgery but want to build rockets instead. If we are to see more girls opting to study physics at A level (or equivalent), we need to present younger girls with more visions of choices that involve the stereotypically male occupations and childhood diversions which are not simply passive or nurturing. Equally, we will only get a more balanced intake by gender into Vet Schools if the Lego Vet’s office is not pink, and encourage boys to cuddle pets rather than tease them. One of the points Fine stresses is that different cultures around the world see very different proportions of boys and girls taking up subjects like engineering. This observation reinforces the idea that engineering is not simply a subject girls are necessarily disqualified from by the way their brains were constructed in the womb, but has a substantial cultural aspect.

One of SteelyKid’s classmates had a birthday party yesterday, which drove this home in a couple of ways. First, when we went to Target to get a birthday present, it was ridiculously difficult to find something that wasn’t ridiculously and unnecessarily gendered. I’m not especially upset by the existence of pink Lego per se– I see that as more for the parents than the kids, and if it gets parents to buy Lego for their daughters, great. But there was almost nothing in Target that wasn’t pitched at some cartoonishly extreme gender stereotype– everything in the “girl” aisles was pink princessy crap, and everything in the “boy” aisles was violent– ninjas and dinosaurs and guns And ninja dinosaurs with guns. We ended up getting a big variety pack of Play-Doh, which was on a separate endcap with toddler-ish things.

The other striking thing was the way the kids play. A couple of SteelyKid’s male classmates were basically playing tackle football in the bouncy-bounce, to the point where I saw one of them throw a shoulder block into the other at the top of a slide, sending both of them tumbling down, laughing. And SteelyKid had a grand time with the older brother of the birthday girl, who was lying across one of the bounce features, while she repeatedly belly-flopped on his back (sometimes with a running start).

The one time she pulled the WWE frog splash on one of the girls in her class, though– hoo, boy. Let’s just say that was not a well-received move. I’m pretty sure, though, that had one of the boys held still long enough, they would’ve thought it was the greatest game ever.

This is a group of three and four-year-olds, and they already pretty clearly have the message about acceptable gender roles. While in many ways, SteelyKid is more temperamentally suited to the roughhousing that the boys do, she primarily plays with the other girls, and the boys play with the other boys. And they get signals, spoken or unspoken, about what kinds of things they “ought” to be doing. Which is why I’m always secretly relieved when SteelyKid and one of her BFF’s give each other goodbye “hugs” that involve wrestling each other to the ground– I try to keep the violence to a restrained level, but I’m glad to see there are at least a couple of girls who are willing to engage in some silly roughhousing.

The more of this stuff I see, though, the more I think that many women-in-STEM initiatives in higher ed are aiming at the wrong target. If you want to really change things, you need to start earlier. About eighteen years earlier, probably more (since the minds you really need to change are the parents’).

(Of course, to be fair to those initiatives, they’re working on changing what they can. College faculty have a fairly minimal ability to affect the conditions even at their own children’s schools and day care centers, but they have a good deal more flexibility to affect their own classes and departments. And even too little, too late is better than nothing at all.)

Comments

  1. #1 greg robb
    April 23, 2012

    There is *real* difference in boys and girls personalities aside from any kind of messages anyone gives out about their attributes. These differences are the *reason* for the implicit associations linked to the genders. As a scientist you might want to read what another scientist, John Medina, says about it here: brainrules.net/brain-rules-for-baby. Boys like to compete for fun. Girls like to friend & tend for fun.

    The fact that marketers use these differences to sell war toys and killing games is despicable but legal. Fun experiential uses of the “wonder gene”, like S.F.’s Exploratorium, enables boys and girls in science. More importantly, children learn their biggest lessons from their trusted caregivers. The key is parental guidance for experiments of every kind that a child may imagine.

  2. #2 greg robb
    April 23, 2012

    There are *real* differences in boy’s and girl’s personalities aside from any kind of messages anyone gives out about their attributes. These differences are the *reason* for the implicit associations linked to the genders. As a scientist you might want to read what another scientist, John Medina, says about it here: brainrules.net/brain-rules-for-baby. Boys like to compete for fun. Girls like to friend & tend for fun.

    The fact that marketers use these differences to sell war toys and killing games is despicable but legal. Fun experiential uses of the “wonder gene”, like S.F.’s Exploratorium, enables boys and girls in science. More importantly, children learn their biggest lessons from their trusted caregivers. The key is parental guidance for experiments of every kind that a child may imagine.

  3. #3 Laura Grams
    April 23, 2012

    Chad, thanks for the terrific comments. My experiences raising 2 girls have been quite similar. However annoying the cultural influences may be at times, though, we parents can still exercise the most powerful influence on our kids, and we can still vote with our wallets. “Girl” Legos are not, for example, something I care to support financially, and luckily my girls reacted to them with utter condescension. They are too busy making a Lego space shuttle to fight the Lego alien mothership.

    For us it has also been helpful to purposefully point out science and math things that come up in day-to-day life (which of course happens all the time, or as often as one cares to bother discussing it). My hope is that they will grow up knowing that science is a normal way of thinking about the world that they use every day, as opposed to some special topic that is meant for someone else, or that is difficult to study.

  4. #4 Christopher Doherty
    April 23, 2012

    This really irks me, though. I think there’s some obvious (subtle?) differences between girls and boys, but what you’re complaining about here is the gender roles that come from watching television and playing with mass-marketed toys. Why the hell does anybody let their kids get their gender typing from that? They should be getting it from mom and dad and extended family and neighbors and respectable people.

    Most of the absurd gender stereotyping we complain about in young kids happens because we depend on schools and television to show our kids what life is like.

    This is just a side note, not a contention, but I think it just reinforces stereotypes to boast about how our daughters sometimes act like boys. My daughter has learned to take her big brothers down, but I don’t consider this boyish behavior; it’s just behavior. Talking about how it breaks the mold just reinforces the mold, I think. For the record my girls like science and my boys are bronies, but I don’t see anything sexual in these things, so why bring it up?

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    April 23, 2012

    This really irks me, though. I think there’s some obvious (subtle?) differences between girls and boys, but what you’re complaining about here is the gender roles that come from watching television and playing with mass-marketed toys. Why the hell does anybody let their kids get their gender typing from that?

    While I agree to a point, it’s not a trivial matter. We’re fighting the good fight on this– we routinely gender-flip the characters in SteelyKid’s bedtime stories (the pig with the brick house is a “she,” and she’s the smart one…), we make an effort to limit the amount of princessy crap she gets, and we get most of her clothes from the boys’ section at Target, because they’re much more practical. Most of the tv she watches is not particularly gendered– one of her favorite shows is MythBusters.

    But she’s not under our direct control all the time. She’s at day care for around eight hours a day during the week, and like all kids, she’s acutely sensitive to what her classmates are doing. And there’s nothing we can do to stop her picking up those messages– we can mitigate them a bit, but that’s all, unless we wanted to completely home-school her, which would create all sorts of new problems, even if we could afford it.

  6. #6 Peter Davis
    April 23, 2012

    In a way, I’m thankful my 1-month old is a boy (we kept his gender a surprise). I’m dreading the day I have to filter out all the princess crap from my future daughter’s life. I HATE princess crap. What’s a dad to do? :)

  7. #7 King of Ordinary Complaints
    April 23, 2012

    acceptable gender roles? Hmmm.

    I thought that was cleared up in early Genesis over 6500 years ago. Why bring up such an old but eternally settled debate?

    Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. neither is better than the other, but they are different. HGet used to it. God made it that way. If you don’t like it ask the creator to change it.

    Oh, and BPA can make you gay. Look it up.

  8. #8 Grand Astral master
    April 23, 2012

    Someone’s chakras are out of balance here.

  9. #9 brook
    April 23, 2012

    As a former children’s clothing manufacturer, as well as the mother of boys who cook and wear dresses when appropriate, as well as a daughter who knows how to do routine car maintenance and use power tools, I am well aware of both innate and socially constructed gender roles.

    In some ways it’s harder to weed the camo out of the boys closets than the princess from the girls. Male is still the norm, so it’s ok for girls to act like boys, but when boys act like girls they are in for a world of crap. Little things, like which side of the sweater you put the buttons can make the difference between a sweater for both boys and girls and one that’s relegated to girls only. I’ve bought a lot of clothes for my boys in the girls section because the colors are so much more fun.

    I’m glad you went for the playdoh.

  10. #10 NJ
    April 23, 2012

    “King of Ordinary Complaints” aka Rob Hood, the undertreated mentally ill denizen of SB @ 7:

    I thought that was cleared up in early Genesis over 6500 years ago.

    Serious question Rob. Why do you even bother with the oddball sockpuppetry? The text of your comments is usually a giveaway as to your identity, but the same could be said of your choices of names to comment under.

    Are you that afraid that someone else here will track down your blog and find out the certifiable insanity you have posted there? About how the HAARP project caused the Japanese earthquake or about how aluminum in vaccines and fluoride in drinking water are teh EEEEEEvvvillll?

    Why not just own up to your beliefs?

  11. #11 Seppo
    April 23, 2012

    I wonder why everyone is associating more warlike and aggressive behavior or toys with intelligence, science and math. Can a girl (or boy for that matter) sincerely like pink sparkly princesses and playing barbies and not be all that into beating up their friends and grow up to be a physicist or agronomist or whatnot? Has there been research done to connect types of childhood play with brain development or whatnot that connects rough-housing with success? I’d be interested to find out.

  12. #12 King of Ordinary Complaints
    April 23, 2012

    @seppo. Boys will be boys. Some like to play rough and get into mischeif. They are just doing what boys do. If I had a boy who liked pink sparkly princesses I would be of most concern for his mental status.

    Spkng f mntl stts, NJ jst hd rctcrdgrm dn nd t ffctd hs lttl brn. H NJ lt’s nj ths mmnt tgthr. ‘ll frt nd y cn snff t. thnk NJ s scrt frt snffr. H gs rnd snffng frts ll d nd drnkng sdm flrd frm BP lnd ld cp. Lttl ds h rlz BP cn mk y g. Stpd cndn frt snffr. NJ ld n gg nd Rbn Hd stl t t gv t t th pr.

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    April 23, 2012

    NJ and “King”:

    English does not contain the words to express how little interest I have in hosting a pissing contest between the two of you carried over from some other blog. Any attempts to continue sniping at each other in my comments will be summarily deleted. It’s a big Internet, find someplace else to be assholes to each other.

  14. #14 Betty
    April 23, 2012

    Is this the same NJ over at Laden’s post? Apparently there were two NJ persons. One claimed to be the real one.

  15. #15 Betty
    April 23, 2012

    Prof. Orzel is correct. Both of these sockpuppets should leave. As a matter of fact I was thinking that they both might be the same person. That happened at some other blogs.

  16. #16 Anna B
    April 24, 2012

    “Talking about how it breaks the mold just reinforces the mold, I think.”

    This is so true. I remember a “Girls choose technology!”-campaign which ran in my area when I was middle school age, and it was beyond awkward. At the high school where I now teach to pay my way through grad school there’s a poster saying “Because of the way I tuned it, this motor is much more efficient”, where the person in the picture happens to be a girl. I think that’s a much better way to go on about it.

    Unless we’re talking about stuff that deals directly with a specific subset of my bodily functions (fortunately, this doesn’t come up often in theoretical physics), I prefer to be treated as a human, not a woman.

    And for anyone who thinks it starts at toddler age, I present this abject horror. (My sincere apologies to anyone who clicked that link.)

  17. #17 NJ
    April 24, 2012

    Chad:

    As you can check, I have posted here on other occasions under the same ‘nym; all I was doing was pointing out a known sockpuppet. But I can certainly understand not wanting to participate in this issue (and I enjoyed your turn of phrase about it!).

    Back to (mostly) lurking…

  18. #18 Eric Lund
    April 24, 2012

    Chad, you’ve mentioned before that you buy most of SteelyKid’s clothes in the boys’ section because it’s more practical than most clothes sold in the girls’ section. Which brings up the question of why people buy the impractical girls’ clothes in the first place. It seems like a waste of money unless the goal is to constrain girls into princess type roles.

    It occurs to me that the attitude of “girls can’t (or don’t need to) do math” is part of this as well. The assumption is that girls are supposed to find a Prince Charming to take care of them, including such details as running the household finances. And that’s definitely a cultural thing; in China and Japan it’s normally the woman who runs the household finances. Nor is there any reason to think the Prince Charming assumption is true. Women have a longer life expectancy than men, and on average they are younger than their husbands, so they are more likely to need to look after their own finances after the death of a spouse. (There’s also divorce–a subset of which involves Prince Charming looking for a trophy wife.) Too many women have suddenly found themselves needing to manage their finances without having learned the skills needed to do so. There is no reason for this state of affairs to come about.

  19. #19 marciepooh
    April 24, 2012

    Eric, I’ve run into the idea (mostly as bloggers tear it apart) that a ‘traditional’ wife would let her husband run everything, like your Prince Charming, but I’ve always wondered where that tradition came from. From Proverbs* through to the 20th century, as I understand it, women pretty much ran the household. Her husband may give her a budget but the wife took care of the household expenses (from simply buying food and clothing/cloth to hiring servants). Even Donna Reed had to manage the grocery budget.

    *read up on ‘the good wife’ she not only manages the household staff and keeps within the household budget and other ‘tradional’ women’s roles, she runs a business and closes land deals.

  20. #20 Pink-loving PhD
    April 24, 2012

    I like Barbie. When I was a kid my room was painted (at my request), bright pink, with white and pink ruffly curtains. I even remember being quite distressed when my mother explained that, as I lived in a republic and not monarchy, I would never be an actual princess. I also liked dead things and hand tools and the insides of cars. I refused to wear anything but frilly dresses with crinoline and big bows when I went outside to dig out mud forts and follow deer trails in the woods. Over the years, I asked for, and got, a wonderful pink bicycle (with shiny streamers) as well as a microscope and a chemistry set. I collected planeria worms from the local stream, but could never manage to slice their cute little heads in half.

    I grew up to be a very happy molecular biologist, published scientific papers and got to use all manner of cool microscopes. I also got to do some ground-breaking research — and I *still* like pink, and have been known to wear a tiara (but only on Halloween).

    Let your kids be themselves. Don’t worry so hard about the gender stereotypes that you suck the fun out of life. Pink is fun. Barbie is fun. GI Joe is fun (and he has those cool joints). Big trucks are fun and sandboxes and blocks and Legos and swingsets and gaudy strings of beads and dress-up clothes — all fun.

    Let your kids know that you will love and accept them, no matter what they want to play with. Include them in what interests you. Listen to what interests them. Don’t weigh them down with your hang-ups about gender stereotypes.

  21. #21 purple more than pink
    April 24, 2012

    Right on, pink PhD. I was a kid in the 70s & never had anything pink. It sucked. My 2 girls have lots of pink, and blue, and sparkles. They like Barbie and Star Wars. They take dance lessons, and like to fish. I think pink legos are OK. And as for those girl clothes, I think leggings and a comfy shirt are pretty practical (and I’m a jeans and hiking boots mom). Lighten up, people.

  22. #22 Thom McCan
    April 24, 2012

    Only idiots believe in unisex—unless having sex is their covert goal.

  23. #23 J.A.
    April 25, 2012

    Pink loving PhD. My 16 year old just spent about 30 minutes looking at all the new colors of OPI nail polish I just bought and deciding which to wear tomorrow with her gorgeous new penicl skirt and pink striped shirt…to her First Robotics award ceremony (and after completing her Multi-variable calc homework). She wants to get a degree in biomechanical engineering and she wants to do it at a place where the girls “dress cute” which from our campus visits includes Johns Hopkins and Duke with the highest ranked BME programs in the country, but not our State U (“why do all the girls wear sweats everyday”)

  24. #24 Vince Whirlwind
    April 26, 2012

    My girls love the pink princess lego. One of them also loves space lego, while the youngest loves the City lego.

    Children are born with a personality, and their sex (if you’re calling sex, gender, you’re either confused or a sociology student) is part of that personality.

    My friends with male children bring their children over and I have to watch most of them like a hawk because they wander around the house looking for stuff to break.
    Two of my girls can be relied on 100% to devote their time to minding any toddler that visits. A different two of them love mythbusters. One of them was into my partner’s closet trying on shoes and hats and putting on makeup as soon as she could crawl.
    They’re born with it, and if you think you have much influence over it, you’re dead wrong.
    What you *should* be doing is explaining to them the manipulation that advertisers and marketers are attempting.
    “If it was any good they wouldn’t need to advertise it”, is one of my favourites.
    And keep them the $%$# away from the TV unless something good is on.

  25. #25 Jana
    April 30, 2012

    “I wonder why everyone is associating more warlike and aggressive behavior or toys with intelligence, science and math. Can a girl (or boy for that matter) sincerely like pink sparkly princesses and playing barbies and not be all that into beating up their friends and grow up to be a physicist or agronomist or whatnot? Has there been research done to connect types of childhood play with brain development or whatnot that connects rough-housing with success? I’d be interested to find out.” –Seppo

    I like this comment, and while I don’t have any data supporting my opinion, I do have an example. One of my friends wears dresses, heals, and pearls to lab all the time, and she is one of the most successful people in grad school that I know. She’s a 2.5 year condensed matter physicist student with two papers out and is fabulous. She is the reason I know it’s possible, and even easy, to be both “girly” and “a science geek” or scientist at the same time. She and I are similar, though I don’t wear stilettos to lab :)

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