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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets

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.

21 Responses to “Bridge Struts in Pink Pantalets”

  1. eilidh says:

    This is just sad.

    I find it near-criminal that toys nowadays are so sex-segregated, colour-coded down to the last LEGO piece (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/16/legos-for-girls-lego-friends_n_1154227.html). It looks like a systematic effort to alienate people from the opposite sex as much as possible.

  2. Christian J. Schulte says:

    Peggy Orenstein is a journalist who wrote about combating the forces of pink in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. It is not at the highly technical end, although it touches on science that debunks the gender essentialist claims. It’s a brisk read, and inspiring for parents who want choices for their girls – and boys too, by extension.

    Her blog at http://peggyorenstein.com/blog.html includes a section on “Fight Fun With Fun” which is useful for parents fighting a forlorn battle against the early childhood brainwashing you describe.

  3. Caliban says:

    I’ve had a few discussions/debates with, for lack of a better term, gender conservatives. It’s instructive to hear their soundbites, the most relevant of which are:

    “Conservatives believe in equal opportunities, liberals in (forcing) equal outcomes”

    and

    “liberals believe in the infinite malleability of humans”

    The gender essentialism you reference plays right into both of these. Gender conservatives believe (I’m simplifying of course) that, yes, long ago in the dark days, there was prejudice, but that has now all been done away with (and importantly no more effort needs to be done). And if there aren’t more women in science, its because “women” in their core construction are not interested in STEM fields. This thereby relieves them of asking if the opportunities are indeed equal.

    The opposite of the second statement is, of course, essentialism: that we have no malleability whatsoever.

    By the way, when I started reading this I thought you might comment on the recent study showing direct prejudice in hiring women in the sciences (here’s a link to the actual study http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109.full.pdf+html and one article about it http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/business/2012/09/women-studying-science-face-gender-bias-study-finds/ ). Rather disheartening to read.

  4. Athena says:

    This is truly grotesque — and very much a backsliding.

  5. Athena says:

    Thank you for the link to Orenstein’s site, Christian! The problem with construction toys is particularly annoying, because they used to be unisex colorwise, etc, when it was thought that “girls aren’t interested in such things.” Now it’s “let’s do them in pink for the girlies!”

  6. Athena says:

    Exactly: the Larry Summers maneuver.

    I did discuss the aspect you mention, in the paragraph of what awaits the girl/woman who decides to enter STEM despite the discouragement during girlhood. There have been several such studies, including the earlier one that occupied an entire issue of Science magazine. It showed the same persistent biases picked up by the PNAS publication. Promptly on the next issue, about 12 high-ranking women biologists sent in a letter claiming that they, at least, had never felt the slightest discrimination. I knew one of them personally, and out of curiosity checked out the rest. The results of MY study: each one, without a single exception, was married to a very powerful male counterpart.

  7. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I’ve heard that pink used to be considered a traditionally masculine color, because it is close to red (the color of Mars, blood, warfare, etc.). Ironic, isn’t it?

    That toy aisle you show in the photo above is truly grotesque- I feel like I may be ill now. I also notice the reproduction-themed toys like baby carriages and infant bears- a not-so-subtle reminder for girls to remain in their “rightful” role. The amount of pressure to conform to social expectations nowadays is truly frightening. It is equally disturbing to see products aimed at narrowing this gender gap falling straight into the “masculine traits vs. feminine traits” mindset instead of rejecting it. Just try giving a girl an Erector set and see what happens- I’ll bet she’s likely to build as enthusiastically as any boy would. The best thing would be to eradicate the separate sections for boys and girls and populate the resulting unified toy section with toys that aren’t gender-targeted.

    Construction toys were always my favorite, too! I had many lego sets when I was younger- rockets, vehicles, ninjas, etc. My favorites were the ones devoted to building a variety of models according to a certain theme, such as aircraft. Instructions are provided for a few models, but the child is encouraged to come up with more aircraft on their own. Lego made a great space shuttle model, too- with a miniature version of the Hubble space telescope in the cargo bay!! :-)

  8. Athena says:

    Indeed, light blue was deemed “feminine” through much of western history — partly because the catholic Virgin Mary was habitually portrayed arrayed in sky blue in her Stella Maris incarnation, partly because hues adjacent to the red part of the spectrum were considered “martial” as you say. But, of course, nobody was prepared for the completely artificial eye-piercing pink that is now deemed “girl-specific” (just looking at it can induce a diabetic comma).

  9. Walden2 says:

    Take this for what it is worth, but B’Elanna Torres was Chief Engineer aboard the USS Voyager in Star Trek: Voyager, and she was no shrinking wallflower as I recall.

    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/B'Elanna_Torres

    This was also the ST series that had a woman captain, Kathryn Janeway.

    Certainly a step up from the original ST series, which said in its very last episode aired in 1969 that women were not allowed to be starship captains and the surprised reaction between Kirk and Spock when a male Klingon starship captain had a woman (his wife Mara) as his science officer.

  10. intrigued_scribe says:

    Outside of vigorous — and detrimental — efforts to enforce gender segregation, I have no doubt it would interesting and telling to see which toys (and disciplines) girls and boys might choose if they were left to their own devices.

    And I agree, it’s ironic that pink was once considered a masculine color. (The shades shown in the toy aisle photo aside; those are nothing short of nauseating.)

  11. Athena says:

    Yes. Pity that Voyager was the worst ST series otherwise (originality, logic, etc). They had three women in charge: captain, engineer, science officer.

  12. Athena says:

    I agree, it would be interesting. Although it’s almost impossible to have totally context-neutral surroundings to do such an experiment properly!

  13. Susan says:

    “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.”

    That is very true. I don’t know whether it’s because it is expected that women will parent and therefore spend less time perfecting their career, or whether hatred of women has forced them into parenthood and away from their career, thereby creating the expectation. But it certainly happens.

    I work in a STEM field and am happy there. Surprised there aren’t more female developers about.

    The article makes a good point that most sexism is unconscious. But that does not make it any less hurtful if discovered, I imagine.

  14. jose says:

    Well intentioned parents are unnerving. I’ve been an uncle for several years now and I’ve seen essentialism and its biases in action. Probably one of the first coordinated movements my niece performed was to grab a baby’s bottle toy and hit a baby doll with it. ‘Look!’ her mother would say. ‘She wants to feed the baby! Isn’t maternal instinct wonderful?’ Sure, this is undoubtedly proof that female humans simply have it in their genes to use bottles to feed babies. ahjkasdjkahsg >_<

    The idea that the girl is simply imitating her mother and that they are effectively training her to be like that never seems to settle into their skulls. I wish I knew an effective way to erode this lifelong belief that this is just the way life and people are.

  15. Athena says:

    I don’t know why either, Susan. And it’s cross-cultural. It doesn’t matter what it is (and it’s all over the map, depending on culture) but girl cooties automatically make a discipline low status.

  16. Athena says:

    That sounds like a poster case of unconscious bias. You can do something as her uncle: give her toys that encourage wider horizons.

  17. AnneC says:

    Reading this a bit late, but as the relentless pinkification of girlhood is a topic I’ve long found both perplexing and disheartening, it’s good to see that folks who realize it’s not a “harmless” thing are still pointing this out.

    I can’t recall exactly when I started consciously noticing the way girls tended to be relegated to the pastel ghetto, but it was definitely sometime in early grade school. The thing that puzzled/annoyed me the most was the way expressing any sort of preference for the non-“pinkified” version of something (toy, clothing, etc.) was interpreted as “troublemaking”. I don’t think a lot of adults-in-charge-of-children even realize the degree to which they tend to police kids’ gender performances.

    In my case there was definitely no *intentional* performance of anything going on…I liked what I liked, and disliked what I disliked, and it just so happened that for whatever reason I was drawn to dark/solid/primary colors (not pink frills!) and spaceship toys/remote-control cars/Lego (not baby dolls!). And yet from an early age, people took my preferences as being some sort of “statement” or deliberate attempt to be “contrary”. I was far from socially aware enough to know what “making a statement” even meant at those age(s) but the whole experience was definitely one of those that managed to open my eyes to the fact that grownups weren’t always mad at you for reasons that actually made sense.

  18. Athena says:

    You’re right, Anne. One of the most troubling aspects of this is the narrow, rigid codification of “normal.”

  19. Walden2 says:

    Maybe – just maybe – people are finally going to wake up about what makes one a “man”:

    http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/20/opinion/waldman-guns-manhood/index.html?hpt=hp_c2

    Of course there will always be holdouts, but perhaps the rest of us can move on now into the 21st Century. Just too bad that it always seems to be an extreme (read violent, deadly) event to wake humans up.

  20. Athena says:

    “The strongest caveman may have led the tribe, but who are the masters of today’s universe? A bunch of skinny, pasty kids who spend their days staring at computer screens. // We have to find reassurance where we can, so even if we can’t prove our masculinity on the job and our kids won’t listen to us, there is a way to feel that testosterone surge through our bodies.”

    Waldman seems to have a low intrinsic opinion about men’s ability to exert self-control. Men don’t do this because they must; they do it because they can and feel entitled to it. Which explains why in fact most of these massacres are committed by skinny, pasty kids who stare at computer screens.

  21. Walden2 says:

    Further evidence that it is going to take a while and a concerted effort to change this attitude.

    Oh, and for good measure:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/our-gun-culture/

    I remember seeing that last Mattel ad in my comic books as a kid.

    For some good news on this front, the head coach of the Syracuse University basketball team used the press conference on his 900th game win as their leader to speak out against the American gun culture:

    http://msn.foxsports.com/collegebasketball/story/syracuse-jim-boeheim-turned-his-night-over-to-a-cause-900th-win-121812

    Oh my, Fox Sports News calls him courageous! I can just imagine the flack he has gotten in some quarters, though. Hope they let him keep his man card. :^S