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.




Sexism Starts Early and Is Reinforced Often: STEM Edition

22 thoughts on “Sexism Starts Early and Is Reinforced Often: STEM Edition

  1. 1

    I think a lot of the people who strongly insist that gendered behavior differences are biological aren’t aware of the extent to which people will treat children differently based on gender starting in infancy. It’s nearly impossible to separate out the human being from the cultural matrix.

    And, more fancifully, Rhyme and Reason are princesses in Norton Juster’s book The Phantom Tollbooth. But there’s no need for “Reason” to have to wear a ballgown and a tutu.

  2. 2

    It starts even earlier.

    A child is born, and still damp from the womb it’s giving its lungs and vocal cords their first work out, loudly. if it’s a boy the proud parents talk over the noise: “Listen to that! Good lungs on him, he’ll make a fine [insert sport of choice] player.”

    If it’s a girl they wait until she calms and say “Isn’t she beautiful.”

    This shit is so deep rooted that I despair that even if we ripped the heads off of all the worse offenders we’ll never touch the source.

  3. 3

    Story of my life. Now I’m a thirty year old woman, back in college, finally doing the mathy thing I always wanted to do, but was afraid I wasn’t smart enough for. One of my saddest childhood memories was asking for a lego technic set for Christmas, getting one (the helicopter) and then watching as my dad took it away so that he and my brother could put it together without letting me even help.

    Gender Delusions by Cordelia Fine is a great book on the subject of “innate” differences with no scientific basis. It should be required reading for anyone dealing with children.

  4. rq

    One of my saddest childhood memories was asking for a lego technic set for Christmas, getting one (the helicopter) and then watching as my dad took it away so that he and my brother could put it together without letting me even help.

    That is sad! And insensitive of them! And… rather proprietarial. It was your new Lego, after all.


    Having only boys, I can’t speak to how people address girls – but I know I have made a conscious decision to put more effort into choosing my subjects more carefully with girls. It’s spooky how easy it is to default to ‘you look so pretty!’, but then, it’s also not that much more difficult to ask ‘what’s your favourite book?’ or to invite them to play with the Hot Wheels collection, too.
    Sad to say, it does take a small conscious effort, though.

  5. 6

    My 5yr old daughter is learning about the solar system at the moment, so I ask her friends what their favourite planet is. Neptune seems to do well, I think girls inherently like purply blue.

    She loved Cosmos too, don’t know how much she got from it at 5 but I was amazed how well it held her attention, not quite MLP levels of attention but not far off.

  6. 7

    It’s nearly impossible to separate out the human being from the cultural matrix.

    I’d say it’s absolutely impossible. It’s like trying to separate the eggs from a cake. Culture is what makes us human.

  7. 8

    oolon, I remember reading a study when I was studying the Golden Ratio (at around 10yo) that said the most pleasing shape a human could see was a purplish-blue rectangle, landscape configuration, proportioned to the Golden Ratio and with the corners rounded off. This was measured both by self-reporting by subjects, and by monitoring brain activity (pleasure centres lighting up, stress responses low).

    The interesting thing about the study was that there was no difference reported by culture, age or gender. The only difference was for people who had tritanomaly (colour-blindness affecting blue light) which is very rare and affects men and women equally.

  8. 9

    I still haven’t figured a way out of this.

    With my kids I’ve tried really hard, but they are still so very gendered in their interests – especially my daughter. My own influence seems to be minimal – outweighed by the influence of fiends (and friends’ parents), grandparents, media (we have no TV, so there’s no TV ad exposure, but it’s still saturation)… it’s a tsunami. I’ll have one a them tequilas too, please.

  9. 10

    I prefer whiskey to tequila….but I’m with ya there.

    This gendered thinking is so ingrained, even those of us who are aware of it have a hard time not succumbing to it pretty regularly. Hell, I notice more than my wife, because she has also gotten so used to simply blowing it off (she’s in a highly male dominate STEM field).

  10. 11

    Once upon a time in the 1970s in America, people thought this was possible (so many brown and yellow and gender-neutral plaid kids’ outfits). And it turns out that one can actually implement gender neutrality in practice, at least in Sweden. We’ve been backsliding a bit here in USA (the Third Wave neoliberal focus on the individual, often to the exclusion of considering systemic issues, has somewhat diverted the advances of feminism as a social movement toward feminism as an identity-and-personal-empowerment movement), but I remain pretty hopeful that we can make up for lost ground, especially as the kids of the 90s – when the queer radical movement hit its highest peak of cultural influence since the genesis of the Gay Liberation movement – take control of our cultural institutions from previous generations.

  11. 12

    You can’t prevent the culture from impacting your children. As someone upthread said, culture is kinda what we do. All cultures (so far) have their toxic elements. But the nice thing about cultures is that they change, very quickly sometimes, and they can be deliberately manipulated. I get as depressed and frustrated as anyone, but I believe you change a culture one person at a time. It is no less a fight to do it that way, and it takes a long time, but it works.

    More than 30 years ago, when my eldest was about 4, an old friend visited with her son, only a few months younger than mine. We took the boys to a toy store, telling them that they could each pick out a small toy. Her son chose a little plastic gun. My son wanted a “baby that pees”. He had apparently seen such on TV. My friend laughed, a little embarrassed and asked him if he wouldn’t rather have a truck or something. He said no. I whispered, “Please don’t tell him what he wants. He knows what he wants.” She whispered back, “But shouldn’t you encourage him to get a more appropriate toy?”

    Mind you, I loved this woman. She grew up in a very male dominated society and she was as tough as nails, believed in what was called at the time “Women’s Lib”, and never took shit off anybody–even though she would say poo, not shit. Someone once condescendingly asked her, “Do you work?” and her response was “Lord, yes. I make all the meals, I do all the laundry, I keep the house clean and watch the kid and do the shopping and…” She went on for a while on that theme. The guy backed away slowly. She was a stay-at-home mom because that was what she wanted to be and deeply resented the notion that that was not “work”. In fact, she was the first person point out to me that unpaid work is unrespected work. Still, she thought the desire to take care of a baby was rather unmanly (though she never said so).

    My son kept that doll for years. When he was as old as 11, and very much a typical boy in most things, I would occasionally find him with that doll tucked under his chin at night. He is still a typical boy in most things. But he started teaching his daughter how to wrestle well before she could walk and taught her boxing as soon as she could stand up on her own. I pity the fool that ever fucks with her. In fact, when she was 7 she got in trouble in school because one of the class bullies was pushing her around and trying to make her leave a popular playground toy. She decked him.

    When she was little she loved pretty dolls, and cute little-girl dresses, and light sabers and train sets. Someone at a park noted how physically sure of herself she was (when she was about 5) and her mom said “She’s been being trained to be a warrior princess since she was born,” and grinned at my son (they were newly divorced at the time, but they both have worked hard to make the fact that they couldn’t live together have as little effect on my granddaughter as possible). I think that was the same day her mom was heard to yell across the playground “You can’t attack Pete (a cousin) with that stick. You aren’t allowed to attack someone who is unarmed,” and got some very strange looks.

    My granddaughter will still grow up in a culture that considers her of less importance than her cousin, Pete, no matter what either of them accomplish in their lives. But I hope it will be a little less so than it is now. As an old woman, I can tell you we have made progress. We really have. We just haven’t made enough. So keep fighting. I’ll be here with you on this side of the Deep Rift. The air smells better over here.

    And we have cookies.

  12. rq

    Best story for me tonight. BEST.

    “You can’t attack Pete (a cousin) with that stick. You aren’t allowed to attack someone who is unarmed.”

    I’m so glad I work alone in the evenings, because that was the least lady-like snorfle that came out of my face, ever.
    The part that saddens me, though?

    Someone at a park noted how physically sure of herself she was (when she was about 5)

    All kids should be physically sure of themselves at that age, all of them. And yet, just a couple of days ago, I had a conversation with Eldest, who is 7 and in grade 1. We were talking about his gym class – he was super-excited because they’d played basketball, boys against girls (he said the teacher doesn’t always split them like that, but she does it quite often from what he’s described to me), and that it was a bit weird (his word), the girls didn’t seem to do too well with dribbling the ball and stuff.
    So we had a nice talk about how some parents don’t think it that important for girls to play sports, so they don’t let them train up when they’re little, but that girls in general are perfectly capable of all sports and related skills. He was glad he’d learned to dribble this past summer, and I explained that’s because his dad (a basketball fan) took the time to play with him, and some parents just don’t think it’s important for girls. We ended with the thought that he should always give the girls a chance and encourage them just as much as his boy friends, and that it is important for everyone to learn basic sports skills (from an exercise-and-co-ordination points of view).
    I have been heartened to see, though, that one of his new friends at school is a girl (we have had issues with making friends with girls in the past).

    (Vaguely related, I was disappointed in Husband’s reaction today when I told him that this season will see the first ever mixed teams in 4-person bobsleigh, by international federation decree. I was so excited, and he was all “Yeah, but they’ll have to see about that difference in weight and speed”. Don’t worry, we talked it out. Just glad the kids weren’t around to hear such an off-hand comment for the great news.)

  13. rq

    You don’t have a link to that, do you? I’d love to read that, and see what alternatives were provided – or if people were just allowed to draw pleasing shapes themselves.
    For what it’s worth, I have always loved Neptune’s shade of blue, too.

  14. 17

    We went to see a lecture by Dr. Michio Kaku last week and got MULTIPLE examples of why there aren’t more women in STEM Fields, somewhere around 8-10 sexist/misogynistic/objectifying “jokes” in less than 20 minutes. Almost every “joke” he told had a woman/women as the punchline.
    The final straw that made our group walk out was him talking about technology eventually,
    possibly, leading to telekinesis. As an “example” he put up a slide of the poster from the newest Carrie movie and talked about how she killed everyone at the end, never mentioning why she killed them. He ended that topic by asking, “What does this teach us about telekinesis?” *pause for effect* “It teaches us not to take a telekinetic to the prom.” There was a long round of laughter to that as we made our way out of the auditorium.
    I had my 13 year old daughter with me and I was beyond disgusted that
    that was her introduction to science lectures.

  15. 18

    Enjoyed the post and all the comments above. I also second the recommendation of Cordelia Fine’s book Gender Delusion.

    One point of worry is the beginning of the quote by Libby Anne,

    “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.”

    There are difficult issues around giving a child the freedom to explore different desires and to create identity, but no child has some innate character that just means they “are into princesses” and others “are into science.” When we frame descriptions of them and of our self in such a way it necessarily eternalizes and essentializes our identities as such. We could say it is part of the identity process. The worry comes when we turn around and try to analyze those identities for innate, cultural, and dialectical structures. I think it should also be acknowledged that our children do not just come into self-defined and robust identities, they come into identities shaped by their individual socialization, both at home and out in the world. Parents, specifically, create the world in which their daughter either likes princesses or like science (not to say they can’t do both). As we frame these issues I would argue its best to use language that does not close off our understanding of why any 5yo is the way they are.

    The angst acknowledged by others is understandable. It is impossible for parents to avoid cultural processes (both of culture and their own interactions) and they acknowledgement that there is no way around some these things. They do want children to be strong but also be able to interact with the social world they find. Maybe another way to put that, and perhaps this is cynical: There is no such thing as a well-adjusted man or woman in our culture, in our social worlds. It therefore looks impossible to socialize our children away from behaviors and attitudes that we see as problematic.

  16. 19


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

    Weeeeeell, if you ever find yourself in Pensacola, Florida, I work at a Mexican restaurant, and we have oodles of Tequila (Herradura, Patron, Cuervo, 1800, Don Julio, Maestro Dobel, El Jimador, Zarco, Milagro).
    Plus all the limes you can squeeze in your eyes (I saw a group of military guys do that years ago. They also snorted the salt.)

  17. 20

    I cannot imagine not being excited to see a 5 year old of any gender playing with equations! Why kill that momentum with nonsense like princesses?!

    I don’t know if I agree with this blog post’s interpretation of the events. I think most folks, if talking to a 5 year old boy playing with equations, would be more likely to ask them about superheroes or another trivial (and gender-biased) topic.

    That said, I do agree with the overarching theme, that young girls are less encouraged in STEM then young boys in many instances, which must be a contributing factor to the gender gap in these fields.

  18. rq

    It wasn’t about ‘most folks’, though – it’s a little girl’s science colleague, who should be interested in the next generation of scientists, who could have at least asked “Hey, what’s that you’re writing there?” before launching into the standard questions.

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