Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mike asks... about girls and science

I'm going to try something new here. My friend Mike and I have wonderful conversations over email, and, with his permission, I'm going to be posting some of them here. He even suggested a monthly, "Mike asks" segment. I think it's a great idea! So, here's the first one:

Mike asks,

This question is still a bit of an academic one, but I'm curious about your real life experiences thus far.  I was reading a blog post the other day where a physics prof. was discussing gender identity and the role it is playing in the women in science gap.  He was saying that he thinks the efforts to get girls into more scientific pursuits needs to start much earlier than people are currently trying.  Even at 2-3 years old, girls (as well as boys) are already being explicitly and implicitly guided as to what is "gender appropriate" behavior.  Even in such a seemingly small thing as the toy isle, girls are driven away from mechanical/engineering type toys and into princesses/dresses and cooking.  You never see a toy model rocket that is pink and glittery aimed at girls, let alone a normal looking rocket or space ship for them.  It's really sad, but at only a few years of age it seems as though we as a society are already turning girls away from STEM.
I was wondering if you, being a mother of a young girl, have had any experience with these gender issues/biases as of yet?  Have you encountered other parents "correcting" their kids on proper gender behavior at a party or daycare?  Have you noticed yourself implicitly doing these types of things and not realizing it till after the fact?  As a (hopefully) potential father in the not-so-distance future I'm curious as to how you deal with these things.
Here is a link to the post in question (link to the post).  I would love to hear your thoughts on it.
My daughter is 16 months old, and I am struck that the post claims 2-3 years old. I've noticed an obvious gender bias since she was born. Immediately all the clothes and toys for girls come in hot pinks, and purples, with fairies and teddy bears, and cute little kitties and puppies on them, while boys clothes and toys (even infants) are blues and greens, covered with trucks, dinosaurs, and sports equipment.

Okay, sure maybe what the baby is wearing doesn't have an impact, but soon they start crawling (about 5 months for us), then around 12 months she started playing pretend. For her birthday and holidays we have only received "girly" toys, such as dolls, a mini-stroller, and a kitchen playset. There's nothing wrong with these toys - we'll use them if we have a boy - but I've been surprised by how biased the gifts we've received have been. As a result, we've made an effort to balance these toys with other "boy" toys or gender-neutral toys. So, our little girl also plays with tools, blocks, and trains. Tonight she pretended to cook for awhile, then used her tools to "fix" the play kitchen doors and handles.

Even books are geared towards boys or girls - about fairies learning to use magic versus about super-heroes figuring out how to save the world. We have so many kinds of books, and try to rotate them, with her favorites showing up more often, like "Goodnight Gorilla".


Another issue that quickly separates girls from boys is that boys are more often encouraged to play outside and get dirty, while girls are encouraged to be clean (don't rip your dress!) and play indoors. Although we don't have a backyard, we try to make it to the park several times a week, and do outdoorsy things on the weekend (like go to the farm, or the park), as well as visiting children's museums and Science museums. It keeps us pretty busy, but I love being so engaged with her learning, and, totally subjectively, think that it has already made a difference.

I haven't seen other parents "correcting" their children on the "proper" gender roles, but I've definitely seen them reinforce the stereotypes. I haven't had enough experience with other parents to comment thoroughly on this though.

Regarding my own actions, I think I've been hyper-sensitized to this issue, especially in the past couple of years. I guess becoming a parent can do that to you. As a result, I've tried to be very cognizant of how we treat our daughter, and continually ask myself whether it is the same way I would treat a son. If not, I ask myself, why am I acting differently? If anything, I try to remind myself that it's okay for her to play with "girly" toys, or want to be clean, if that's her personality.

As an aside, our little girl is one of the cleanest babies I've encountered. She likes to get a washcloth or wipe so she can clean her face and hands, she doesn't like sand on her hands (but dirt is okay), and she will ask me to wipe off her hands or face if she knows there is food on them. But even as a little baby she really didn't like having dirty diapers and would calm right down after being changed. So, remembering that her personality might fit some gender stereotypes has been useful.

In the end the overall goal is to do our best to expose her to as many different options for toys/play/learning as we can, and reinforce our support for whatever she chooses to do. 

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