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.)