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How do we make room for pink microscopes? (More thoughts on gendered science kits.)

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


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As we’ve been considering the hazards of gendered science kits for kids, some have suggested that it is simplistic to paint pink microscopes as an unalloyed evil.

One response on the potential value of girls’ science kits comes from Meghan Groome at Pathways to Science:

As someone who studies the formation of science identity in middle school students, I see everyday how girls try to navigate acceptable girl identities with those teachers look for to identify science talent.  For many girls, upper elementary and middle school is a time where they are expected to lose both boisterous and intellectually curious elements of their external personalities.  Day in and day out, I observe teachers, boys, and other girls in the class act as “gatekeepers” for smart, vocal girls in science. It’s subtle but once you point it out, it’s unmistakable. …

Teachers look for somewhat specific characteristics to define a kid who is smart or good in science. Those include excelling on exams, participating in class, and showing an interest in the content.  Excelling on exams is a fairly private affair but class participation and curiosity become high-risk behavior for girls lead to them hiding their interest and talent.

All students have to make choices about who they are to the outside world, but for girls, there are fewer ways to be both a girl and someone who is outwardly interested and good at science.

So, when I originally read about girly science kits I balked at what appeared to be a gross exaggeration of girly identity.  I’ve had similar responses when I got to robotics competitions and see the all-girl teams decked out like princesses or cheerleaders.

But upon reflection, I wonder why we adults are so quick to shut down another way that a girl can navigate being a girl and being a scientist? Do I personally want to be a scientist who acts like a Barbie? No, but who am I to shut down someone who chooses Barbie Scientist over Tom Boy scientist?

I think this assessment is onto something — although my experience is that there are fewer acceptable ways to be a girl regardless of whether one is outwardly interested in and good at science. Still, it’s worth asking if the rejection of gendered science kits might function (whether intended to do so or not) as another kind of gender policing, insisting that girls who pursue science must foreswear femininity entirely.

Another response, which I take to be less a defense of gendered science kits and more an examination of the assumption built into negative reactions to them, comes from Lauren at teenskepchick:

I kind of felt like there has been a bit of pink-slagging going on.

Now, I’m not averse to pink. At one stage in my childhood I used to bemoan the colour and anything my parents chose out for me that happened to be pink. I didn’t want to be like those girls. With their pink and their cattiness and their girliness. Internalized misogyny is about valuing “masculinity” and male-ness over “femininity and female-ness, and that is exactly what I did with my dislike of pink. I got over that (for the most part) long ago, and now I’m more than happy to wear pink or stick pink things on my walls or (as my avatar would have you believe) in my hair (and if the blasted colour held well, it might still be in my hair). Which is cool! I like pink. It probably isn’t my favourite colour, but I like it and I see nothing wrong with anybody (of any gender identity) embracing the colour pink.

Except, apparently, when it came to physics. If there was any pink anywhere near my science, it could GTFO as far as I was concerned. I had become used to being incredibly outnumbered in my classes, and getting the reaction “Oh, but that’s a boy subject” when I told people what my majors were. I don’t even understand why people think that is a socially acceptable thing to say, but it happens more often than you’d think. I was tired of second-guessing my wardrobe choices for some classes, and I was tired of coming across stories about T-shirts with messages that implied girls suck at maths.

Enter the Science Babe, aka Deborah Berebichez. When I first started coming across some of her work in my journeys across the intertubes, I wasn’t a fan. The opposite. It was physics and it was pink and it was high heels and it was very gossip-y and I hated it. I’ve lately come to realise, though, that that’s okay! If that is what it takes to get more girls interested in physics, then that is awesome. Same deal with the pink science kits. The problem (well, one of them) is with how they are marketed to reinforce set gender roles, that girls need to be girly and boys… boy-y. The problem is not that pink and femininity and all of that are bad.

There are a bunch of related issues intertwined here.

There seems to be a strong societal presumption that science (and math, and related subject matter) are “naturally” of interest to boys (and men), but not to girls (and women).

There seems to be another strong societal presumption that girls are “naturally” inclined toward femininity — where femininity is described in a pretty narrow way connected to pink stuff, pretty clothes, interpersonal relationships, and the like — and boys are “naturally” inclined toward masculinity that is defined in similarly narrow terms.

Then there’s the presumption that science and math are more compatible with those masculine characteristics than with feminine ones.

Finally, there’s at least a tacit assumption that feminine characteristics and pursuits compatible with them are not as valuable as masculine characteristics and pursuits compatible with them — that the things that are linked to femininity are less than. (This is the internalized misogyny Lauren describes in her post.)

And these intertwined assumptions set up what can feel like a minefield for girls trying to negotiate the twin challenges of figuring out what pursuits interest them and of figuring out who they want to be.

On the one hand, a girl may be totally non-plussed by social pressure to be a certain kind of girl, compliant with a stereotypical version of femininity. But if this girl who resists the pressure to be “feminine” also decides she’s into science, maybe this runs the risk of reinforcing the assumption that science is not compatible with femininity — sure, here’s a girl who wants to do science, but she’s not actually a girly girl.

Indeed, if the girls one knows who are into science are uniformly those who depart from society’s picture of femininity, it may seem to the girls just working out whether to explore science that there is a forced choice between being feminine and pursuing science. And, if they’re OK with the bundle of qualities that is part of societally sanctioned femininity, they may conclude that they’re better off opting out of science (a conclusion peer-pressure may support).

Worse, the grown-ups mentoring girls, including the ones teaching them math and science, may believe that there is a forced choice between science and femininity. Among other things, they may pre-emptively decide that girly girls are not part of their target audience.

And, falling in line with society’s judgments, the girls who pursue science may assume that the girls who hew closer to the “feminine” stereotypes are less interested in or able to do science. This attitude may leave the girly girls who actually pursue science feeling rather isolated even from other girls in science.

All of this strikes me as a pretty raw deal.

In a perfect world, a pink microscope would be just as valid a choice as a blue one (assuming both have the same magnifying power). But in the world we currently inhabit, the pressure on girls to fit the stereotype of femininity is enormous, and comes from multiple sources, including (but not limited to) family members, peers, and school.

A well-meaning attempt to suggest to girls that science can be compatible with the stereotype of femininity can end up being yet another reminder that you need to conform to that stereotype. Otherwise, why the heck would every science kit in the girls’ section come in a pink box?

And lest we forget, Krystal D’Costa reminds us that boys face a parallel pressure to avoid anything that might be officially recognized as feminine:

[G]irls have the option not to choose pink, but do boys ever have the option to choose pink? Will the little boy curious about scents be isolated by his siblings and extended family if they learn what science kit he wants? Because it comes in a pink box?

To get to the point where a pink microscope does not act as yet another tool to police gendered expectation on girls (and boys) — and when women who reject pink microscopes are not used to police gendered expectations on scientists (as not girly) either — we need to figure out how to change the societal presumption that femininity and masculinity have anything at all to do with inclination towards, or ability in, science. We need to recognize opting into, or out of, femininity or masculinity as a completely separate issue from opting into, or out of, math and science. And, decisions with respect to math and science need to be seen as counting neither for nor against your opting into or out of a particular package of gendered characteristics.

After all, as far as I can tell, whether one is interested in math and science, or displays an ability for them, is an empirical question. Why not drop the gendered assumptions about who will be “naturally” suited to them and see what happens?

It would also be great if we could let kids find out who they are and how they want to be without locking them into a rigid, binary choice. If there was no pressure to be a particular kind of boy or a particular kind of girl — if the full range of options was open to everyone — I suspect it might be easier not to judge one set of options as inherently less than.

Again, I think it’s an empirical question — so let’s roll up our sleeves and create the conditions where we can actually find out.

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. Jerzy New 9:37 am 12/3/2011

    I think gendered science kits and suchlike harm children. They harm development of important skill, which is, incidentally, especially important in science. This is abandoning one’s own easy, familiar point of view, and looking at reality from other perspective, like objective perspective of science or perspectives of the other sex, other cultures, other individuals.

    Perhaps that is why European schools have no gendered science kits but better educated schoolchildren.

    Are laws of physics gendered? Are sun and stars gendered?

    If oneseeing give them false sense that the world can be made

    to study it.

    So, children given gendered science kits will study gendered laws of physics, gendered chemistry etc?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jerzy New 9:38 am 12/3/2011

    Undeleted mess at the end of the previous post – please delete.

    Link to this
  3. 3. DavidMJones 9:52 am 12/3/2011

    Good discussion. I try to understand the issues because I know that there are issues about this topic. Like any sort of prejudice the ONLY way to end it is to stop being prejudice. Sounds simplistic, but how else will any prejudice stop. It’s not gone until we stop doing it. Any person interested in science should be encouraged. Amd while I’m at it, what is the point of os using stupid terms such as ‘girly’?

    Link to this
  4. 4. tcbbiggs 6:31 pm 12/23/2011

    You really hit the ball out of the park for me. I think it is more important to teach kids that they will be the best (scientist, firefighter, teacher, chef etc) if they are true to themselves and be who they want to be. If girls want to feel pretty and wear makeup and nice clothes or, if boys like to dress sharp and look clean, or if someone just wants to wear jeans and sweat shirts and not comb their hair every day, then they should do that, independent of if they want to be scientists or engineers.

    Two high school girls were teaching programming at a summer camp for middle school girls, one of whom tended towards the more casual side of the girls’ grooming spectrum and the other a beautiful young lady who looked like she just stepped out of a magazine. When the more “glamorous” young woman assisted a girl with a tricky problem, the younger student gazed up at her with a quizzical look on her face and said, “wow, you’re so smart. But you’re so pretty too?” Bless those high school girls who dropped the lesson plans and spent the next 15 minutes talking to the middle schoolers about how they should be who they want to be and dress how they want to without worrying about what people say they should do.
    I will also point out that the first activity that the campers participated in at this week-long Technology camp for girls was decorating their safety glasses with glitter and jeweled stickers. At the end of the week, 85% of the campers surveyed said that they were more interested in technology than they had been before the camp. I don’t think you can credit the glitter for that, but the camaraderie with other girls.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Link to this
  5. 5. TheCellularScale 12:19 pm 06/22/2012

    I think this is really important. It’s just as sexist to think that women shouldn’t act feminine in science as it is to think that they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

    Just as it is “blasphemous to say that a black kid with a book is acting white” (to paraphrase Obama) it is blasphemous to say that a woman in science is acting masculine.

    Link to this

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