Sexism Starts Early and Is Reinforced Often: STEM Edition

Listen up, everyone who likes to babble about innate differences between the sexes (especially you, Sam Harris). Listen to Libby Anne, whose daughter Sally loves science. Listen to the story of Sally drawing equations on her dad’s office chalkboard, and a science colleague dude walking in, and asking a little girl who’s enthusiastically writing numbers-

(No, he didn’t ask her about her math stuff. Don’t be silly! Everybody knows girls don’t math, even when they’re happily scribbling numbers.)

(No, you weirdo, he didn’t ask her if she likes science. Of course not! Her dad and her two year-old brother can like science, but even if she’s doing sciencey stuff all on her own, that’s obviously not what she likes, because girls don’t science.)

(No, of course he didn’t ask what she was doing! She was obviously just doodling. It didn’t mean anything. Numbers don’t mean things to girls, duh.)

No, of course he asked her the only rational thing you could ask a girl who’s playing with numbers on a chalkboard:

“What’s your favorite princess?”

Image is an angry troll face with red eyes. Background has the letters FFFFFUUUU repeated in red.

Because that’s not reinforcing sexist stereotypes at all.

Libby Anne spoke to the gentleman about it, and you’ll be relieved to know he’s totes aware that women are under-represented in STEM fields, it’s just that his nieces like princesses, so of course that’s what you ask little girls who are playing with math about.

Then, y’know, when those little girls tell you they haven’t got a favorite princess, but they adore science, of course it’s fine to walk out while they’re in the midst of sharing that love, because you’re probably busy and don’t have a moment to listen to miniature females talk about science. She’s supposed to have a favorite princess, anyway, amirite, guys?

Image shows Puss in-Boots from Shrek holding something in his paw, with his mouth open in an angry O. Caption says, "You see this? You see this shit!"

Libby Anne has a message for us:

Many little girls are into princesses, yes, and that’s fine. But but others prefer legos, or art, or My Little Ponies—or science. I want a world where girls are treated as individuals first, a world where girls are allowed to fill in the blanks in their own stories. Is it so hard to ask a girl her interests instead of assuming them for her?

My son Bobby is two, and I’m interested to hear what people say to him as he grows so that I can compare. What do people lead off with with five-year-old boys? It will be gendered as well, I’m sure, and that’s the problem—this is part of the process of socializing children into specific gender roles. Girls are assumed to like sweet sparkly pretty girly things and boys are assumed to like strong manly messy boy things. And then we do studies on psychological differences between men and women or differences in occupational choice as though these things are wholly natural rather than largely the product of relentless cultural shaping during childhood.

Can we please stop doing this shit? It’s 20fucking14. Isn’t it time to stop shoving little kids into gendered boxes and let them love what they love? Can’t we please encourage kids to figure out for themselves what floats their boat?

And if you engage in stupid oblivious sexist shit like the above dude, you really need to take another look at your assumptions, and consider that your thoughtless actions are a major reason why women and men turn out differently. Hint: it ain’t all biology.

/rant. Sod this for a lark. I need a vat of tequila and a truckload of limes, now, please.

 

 

 

Taking Boys Out of the Box

I didn’t like being a girl. It was harder to duck behind a tree when nature called when we were out playing in the woods. I sometimes had to do cruel things to the boys to prove I was tough as them. One of my friends wouldn’t let me play with his army men because I was a girl, and girls don’t play soldiers (I quickly disabused him of that notion, much to his astonishment).

But a lot of the time, I didn’t notice I was a girl. I was wearing pants and jumping my bike and getting in the mud and building stuff and commanding the pack, just like one of the boys.Hell, I was even more hardcore than some of them. When I crashed my bike on a road chip-sealed with cinders and road-rashed myself from toe to waist, I told ‘em I’d be right back, and hobbled home for some quick patching up. Alas, my mom decided someone with that many bleeding wounds needed to stay inside, but my friends respected the fact I hadn’t shed a tear. One of our buddies would head sobbing for home the instant he stubbed a toe. None of us wanted to be like that.

So yeah, I was usually one of the guys, which was fortunate, because there were a grand total of five girls in the entire neighborhood, none of them my age. No one had any problem with a tomboy, of course. And, outside of a few incidents like the Army Men War, no one bothered to tell me I couldn’t do something because female. Even when I went home and played with dolls, even when I prettied up my playhouse, no one thought it was odd for a girl to be a girl in boy’s clothes, mostly doing boy’s things.

The guys didn’t do girl stuff as much, but there were times when they’d come over to play dress-up, or do a nice afternoon tea with us, and my yellow Easybake Oven was one of the boys’ favorite things ever. I remember once when my one close girl friend and I were getting our nails painted by her mom, her brother wanted in on it, too. So his mom gave him a few red nails, until he got bored with manicures and wandered off.

But that was a line rarely crossed, that dividing line between girls and boys. We girls could wear anything, any time, but the boys never put on a dress outside of playing dress-up in the house. And as we all got older, they stopped doing even that. They had to hate girls, and run from our cooties, and be all tough and in to boy things like trucks. Girls were sort-of encouraged to be pretty and feminine, but we could run around in ripped jeans and ratty sneakers one day, and a dress the next. We could cross the boy-girl divide at will.

I didn’t think that was very fair, when I thought about it. Why shouldn’t the boys do the pretty clothes and makeup if they wanted? Why couldn’t they play the girlie games without getting tormented by peers and parents alike? Why couldn’t they be openly interested in girl stuff? I might have hated being a girl at times (especially after Aunty Flow made her first appearance), but I was grateful for the chameleon opportunities it gave me. People back then were great with girls doing boyish things, so I could do absolutely anything I wanted, while my boy friends were stuck on the boy side of the divide.

I think of that often, now, as the world gets ever more pinkified. I mean, for fuck’s sake, they’ve even gendered the dogs.

 

Gendered doggie toys and clothes at one of the local mega-petstores. This whole pink-and-blue obsession has gone way the fuck too far.

Gendered doggie toys and clothes at one of the local mega-petstores. This whole pink-and-blue obsession has gone way the fuck too far.

And while we’re fighting to get girls out of that box they’re being energetically stuffed in to lately, the one that says they love pink and princesses and ponies but heaven forfend they like boy colors and boys toys, we need to remember that boys are in a box, too. Libby Anne has both a son and a daughter, and she sees people trying to stuff them both in their respective boxes all the time.

“Look at him!” [Uncle Dale] said. “He’s obsessed with that train. He’s such a boy!” I frowned. I hate it when this happens. I took a deep breath.

“Actually,” I said, “When Sally was Bobby’s age, she was completely obsessed with large construction vehicles.”

Uncle Dale laughed. “How odd,” he said. His voice was dismissive.

“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” I replied. “I find that if you let kids just be kids rather than pushing them into gendered boxes their interests are generally eclectic.”

[snip]

Neither Sally nor Bobby fit in conventional gender boxes, but someone who spotted Sally playing at princesses might very well respond with “She’s such a girl!” in the same way that Uncle Dale noticed Bobby fascinated by trains and responded with “He’s such a boy.”

What’s going on here exactly? Confirmation bias.

And that hurts girls, but boys have it bad, too. They’re not encouraged to play with dolls, put on makeup, stomp in high heels (unless their mom is as awesome as Libby Anne). If a girl crosses the divide, she often gets forced back into the girl box, but there are plenty of people cheering her on, encouraging her to break out again. Boys who try to cross, though – society loves to belittle them, be horrified by them, call them gay, tell them to man up. We need to fight to get them out of the box, too. We need to have a response ready when society tells them they’d better toe the masculine line.

We need so much more of that. Kids don’t need this gendered crap. Neither do adults. Let people be people. Erase the lines. Let the girls put on the firefighter’s outfit. Let the boys wear ballgowns. Let’s strive for a world where no one’s trapped in a gendered box.

And the next time you see a child crossing the divide, tell them they’re wonderful.