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Gendered science kits aren’t so great for boys either.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In response to my post about science kits for girls, a reader wrote to me:

I would be really interested to see an exploration of the kits for boys from the same company. They also appeal to stereotypes that are damaging by offering only destruction, gags, and grossouts as the appeal of learning about science.

As requested, here we go!

If the selection of science kits for girls was inescapably pink, the boys’ ones have to be blue. Otherwise, how would the adults doing the shopping know that they were on the right page to find appropriately gendered gifts for the kids on their shopping lists? Surely, these adults must be utterly baffled by a webpage layout like this one:

How do you tell which are the girls’ kits and which are the boys’ ones? What’s the big idea of making kits sortable by subject-matter categories, or price, or appropriate age range? There are just too many possibilities here for interesting the gift-recipient in science!

Although maybe that’s a feature, not a bug.

Anyway, back to the WILD! Science boys’ offerings. In contrast to the girls’ offerings, which included 13 different kits, there are only six kits targeted specifically to boys. It’s unclear what the thinking is behind this disparity. Perhaps it’s that science is a harder sell for girls, requiring a greater variety of kits to grab their interest, while boys are more “naturally” inclined toward scientific pursuits and thus need less of a prodding from a kit. Maybe it’s that girls are more acquisitive of consumer goods (especially those packaged in pink boxes), thus supporting a larger stable of girls’ kits than boys’ kits.

Or possibly it’s that boys’ interest in science are so narrow that these six kits include the only plausible points of entry.

(Recall, though, that the 13 girls’ kits included enough overlap — multiple kits on crystal growth, fragrances, and soap-making — that they don’t really constitute 13 possible points of entry to their interest in science.)

One of the boys’ kits is Weird Slime Science. Its product description is nearly identical to that of the corresponding girls’ kit, Beautiful Blob Slime. One difference is that the description of the girls’ kit emphasizes the safety of the chemicals used. Does this suggest that adults worry more about (or care more about) the safety of girls than of boys? Is implied danger a selling point of science where boys (but not girls) are concerned? Either way, the big difference between the two kits seems to be that one comes in a blue box and the other comes in a pink box.

The boys also get a soap-making kit, although theirs is described as “Practical Joke Soap”. In addition to making the soap, they get to “[e]xplore … multiple stage embedding and the art of welding with soap to create realistic and gruesome soap objects like brains and eyeballs.” The girls’ soap-making kits offer no such practical instruction on practical joking.

Let’s pause for a moment to examine an assumption that seems to be built into the gendering of these soap-making kits: that girls are interested in what is pretty and fragrant (and exfoliating) while boys are interested in the gruesome (or in the hilariously shocked reactions of people who come upon these gruesome soap specimens). Some girls may prefer the pretty and the fragrant, but other girls may prefer realistically gross stuff. (I am a parent to at least one such girl.) Some boys may enjoy the gross-out, but other boys don’t. And, science kits that police these gender stereotypes run the risk of alienating boys from science, too. If you’re a boy that doesn’t like gruesome stuff, this kind of kit will not encourage you to like science. As well, it may lead to the uneasy feeling that you’re not living up to societal expectations of masculinity.

That’s a pretty rotten gift to give a kid.

This is not to say that these heavily-gendered science kits are the only source a kid has about these expectations. When I was little, I was so fascinated by creepy crawlies that I routinely picked up any earthworm I could get my hands on. Despite some pretty consciously egalitarian parenting, my younger brother was (I am told) of the view that if a girl could pick up a worm, a boy should be able to do it too. (Maybe he got this message from kids at preschool, or other relatives, or TV.) However, he was so grossed out by actually doing so that he squeezed the life out of each of the poor worms he picked up.

In other words, gender stereotypes don’t just hurt boys and girls — they also hurt earthworms!

Other boys’ offerings include a Hyperlauncher Rocket Ball Factory (with which to make superballs and explore F=ma), Spooky Ice Planet (which seems to involve crystal growth, but it’s pretty hard to tell from the product description), Perils of the Deep (ditto), and a kit called Wild Physics and Cool Chemistry. As it happens, this last kit combines the boys’ Hyperlauncher Rocket Ball kit and Weird Slime kit, which is probably why it appears in the boys’ offerings. It’s pretty striking, though, that none of the girls’ kits is identified as a Physics and/or Chemistry kit. Is it more important that boys recognize these activities as connected to well-defined science subjects in school? Why exactly should that be? And, how is this consistent with the lack of clear descriptions as to what scientific principles boys might learn from “Spooky Ice Planet” or “Perils of the Deep”?

More generally, note that the boys’ kits seem to assume that boys are interested in: stuff that’s spooky or gross, stuff that bounces, and (maybe) stuff that’s dangerous. Unlike the product descriptions for the girls’ kits, none of the product descriptions for the boys’ kits pitch these activities as ways to make gifts for family and friends, which suggests that boys are assumed to be more self-centered and less giving.

Again, these are gendered stereotypes that will only fit some boys, while ignoring the complexities of most actual boys. To the extent that these kits send subtle and not-so-subtle messages to boys about how they ought to be, they police masculinity in a way that is bound to be limiting to boys and the men they grow up to be.

And, it’s not obvious that using these gender stereotypes is a good way to get boys interested in science.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. kevin1111 1:54 am 12/11/2011

    >>science kits that police these gender stereotypes run the risk of alienating boys from science, too<<

    How do science kits do all that?

    You make it sound as though the kits — I assume you mean the companies and marketers behind the kits — are trying to mold the minds of kids into being what they want them to be.

    I've worked in marketing and I can assure you that there is only one goal: making money. Marketing is all about getting inside customers' heads and figuring out how to get them to spend money. To stay in business, to keep a job, this must be done better than the competition.

    You throw around the ugly word "stereotype," but in marketing, generalizations must be made. The company figures out what is generally true for the target group, and markets accordingly.

    And so if they market slime and bugs and destruction to boys that is because this is how they can make money. This works because it is true, boys do generally like things like slime and bugs and destruction. The proof is in the dollar bill.

    If a certain boy is an exception to this generalization, no problem, there are lots of other science kits available that do not concern these things. He is not being discriminated against. Maybe he'd like to create his own makeup.

    Link to this

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