My readers know by now that I’m not “feminine” as defined by western mainstream culture. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. I was instinctively allergic to being girly. I didn’t like the brittle plastic feel of dolls (though woolly bears and tigers crowd my bed even now), I detest all pink except the salmon-nectarine hues of dusk and dawn, I took to formal math like a goose (not a gander) to water – the silly stories made up to “soften it” gave me hives – and I’ve always loved and excelled in structural toys and puzzles, including those that supposedly derange female brains: namely, mentally rotating objects.
A question that comes up constantly in the circles I frequent is “Why aren’t more girls following STEM paths?” (STEM=Science Technology Engineering Mathematics). In many ways it reminds me of that other vexed question: “Why are First Worlders getting more obese?” In both cases, the question foci (girls/overweight people) are caught in severe double binds: the desired goal (becoming a woman who enters a STEM domain/having a healthy weight – which is not the same as a “socially desirable” weight) is strewn with obstacles that are almost entirely external and so systemic as to constitute the equivalent of the atmosphere; and both success and failure at following each path carry heavy personal costs [before anyone starts shrieking about “fatphobia”, read You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality where I discuss the grave dangers of excessive thinness. I intend to write a counterpoint follow-up to that at some point; this time we’ll focus on girls and STEM.]
To put it bluntly, a girl/young woman who wishes to follow a STEM vocation sets herself up for a lifelong drizzle of frustration, belittlement and harassment. At all points she will be reminded she’s unnatural, like a dog prancing on its hind legs; that women cannot achieve “true greatness” (however defined) in STEM. She may be actively attacked, from verbal insults to outright physical assaults. She will be given less mentoring, less salary, fewer plum positions and first-ranking journal publications, even fewer awards, promotions and perks – and she will be expected to be the default parent, if she wants a family. Her credentials and credibility will always be questioned, even if she gets a Nobel. This holds for the so-called First World as well and in fact it’s getting worse rather than better (economic downturns and fundie religiosity tend to do that). Given all this, the fact that women do make up a significant proportion of STEM is actually a near-miracle.
I was reminded of this issue recently when I had reason to look into games aimed at familiarizing very young girls with STEM before the age they start get turned off science or risk being labeled unfeminine. A preliminary point is that such efforts may be “making holes in the water” because the sad fact is that when enough women enter a discipline, it gets automatically re-classified as “female” and its perceived value and social/financial rewards plummet. This is true regardless of content: from doctors in the former Soviet Union to personal assistants to writers of what is arbitrarily labeled “soft” SF (which, ironically, includes almost all biologically-focused work because, you know, only pointed and exploding objects are hard SF).
That aside, the attempts to create STEM-relevant toys that are “girl-friendly” show the desire to counteract gender targeting, which starts in the cradle and never subsides, as well as the unavoidable pitfalls of such coding. Unquestionably, narrowing the STEM gender gap is more than worthwhile. At the same time, the guiding principles of this concept give me serious pause.
Pitches of such products are abrim with bluntly essentialist statements like “Boys have strong spatial skills, which is why they love construction toys so much. Girls, on the other hand, have superior verbal skills. They love reading, stories, and characters.” and “The set features soft textures, curved edges and attractive colors which are all innately appealing to girls.” As a corollary, such toys/games are aggressively girly (bubble-gum pink features prominently) and their characters are usually so whitebread that they could cause snow blindness. This is nothing new, of course – just read Tom Englehardt’s trenchant and still sadly relevant 1986 essay about gender coding in children’s TV programs. This domain hasn’t moved an inch since the fifties. Given how formative early socializing is, the rarity of women engineers, in particular, should not really be so surprising.
Had I seen such games when I was their target age, I’d have walked right past them (and I threw them summarily away when I received them as gifts). For one, I used Erector sets and suchlike as enthusiastically as I read stories; for another, the bland blondness endemic in such toys codes for “daffy airhead” in my culture. These products are explicitly geared to appeal to parents anxious to “correctly” socialize their children. And despite their excellent intentions, they reinforce the incredibly problematic “separate but equal” status quo even as they try to combat it.
In some ways, these games are younger-cohort variations of the concept that it’s a good idea to have sex-segregated schools if they enable girls to gain a foothold in areas traditionally closed/hostile to them. Of course, this approach worked if you went to the Ivy League Seven Sisters before they went co-educational – or to my competition-entry elite high school, whose explicit mission was to create future nation leaders. On the other hand, my sister went to a public school whose math teacher decided not to teach the girls – because “housewives don’t need algebra.” So sex-segregated education works, kinda, but only if you’re a princess or, at minimum, a mandarin-to-be.
Proponents of this approach argue that “girly” identity is often established by age 5 and therefore girls need to be coaxed back to problem-solving (as if traditionally “feminine” occupations like cooking and doing laundry are not problem-solving and don’t require spatial and suchlike skills… but we’ll put that aside). As far as I know, Tarzanist bleatings excepted, no correlation has been established between early girliness and later inclination to science, nor are the two mutually exclusive at any age (this also depends on how “girliness” is defined). On the other hand, if your parents, teachers and peers punish you in a myriad small or large ways if you don’t behave “as you should” gender-wise, it’s a foregone conclusion you will tack your lifeboat accordingly. Unless you’re like me, in which case you’ll get even more stubborn – and pay the price.
I think the only real solution to this problem is to tone down the gender essentialism of both “halves” and see to it that girls (and, more importantly, their parents) receive the message that it’s okay to browse the “blue aisles”, where STEM-relevant games are not an explicit insult to basic intelligence. Of course, the ideal would be to tone down (better yet, erase) gender essentialism at all times and places and deem “non-masculine” things of equal value, but I recognize that for the pipe dream it is.