According to Microsoft, 7% of women and 15% of men who graduated from college in 2016 pursued a STEM major, which is a trend that is neither surprising nor new. But there has been quite the debate over the origin of this gap and whether or not it’s even a problem (hint: it is). After thinking about the gendered information that kids are exposed to throughout their childhoods, however, I think the root of this issue is pretty clear.
I grew up with one sister and no brothers, so our basement was naturally converted into a Barbie village. We used these dolls to unleash our creativity, creating furniture and vehicles for them out of recyclables, which was pretty sick if you don’t mind me tooting my own horn. But I can’t help but note that most of our play clothes, toys, favorite movies and books were made specifically for girls. Now, I’m an English major who wants nothing to do with the science distribution requirement at my school, and I’m curious about that connection.
There’s always the devil’s advocate who says that stereotypes exist because they’re true. But a big part of normative behavior comes from nurture (not nature). The good news is, this means we have a shot to fix it going forward. The level of difference in the way boys and girls are treated when they are young is mind blowing, and many of these differences lead to the ways kids start forming preferences that inevitably inform their career choices later on. Check out these areas where strict gender roles are shaping the next generation.
Example 1: The Toy Industry
It’s no secret that toys in our culture are extremely gendered. Some of these separations seem harmless, but even the simplest distinctions between blue and pink can widen the already damaging divide. Children practice adult life skills when they play, and the way toys are made and marketed today teach kids that there is a difference between what boys and girls should and can do.
For instance, masculine toys like blocks, cars, and action figures teach boys spatial skills and leadership, which leads them towards preferences in engineering, sciences, and finance because of the way spatial skills help you visualize the movement and interaction between parts of a problem. Girls toys like dolls and kitchen sets teach girls to socialize, empathize, and care-take, which sets girls up to choose careers that require emotional intelligence such as nursing, teaching, writing, psychology, and motherhood. Can anybody else see that direct line from childhood to motherhood that toys are promoting?
All of these skills seem important to me, so why are we limiting kids with toy segregation? Not only would getting rid of gendered marketing help produce more well rounded youth, but it could help to diversify the STEM workforce. Studies have shown that encouraging girls in high school to participate in STEM is too late, and this push needs to start earlier. Why not incorporate a variety of toys without emphasizing their gender during play?
Example 2: Clothes
Stores for children's clothes are divided by gender the same way toy stores are, and once again, the differences between the two sections is chock-full of symbolism that teaches kids about what they are capable of. The fit of girls’ clothes are tighter, less comfortable, and more detailed than boys’ clothes. Early on, this makes girls’ bodies public and emphasizes the importance of their appearance. Not to mention that constricting clothes limit movement and active play. These factors implicitly teach girls that they are not supposed to be as active as boys and that they should value their appearance more. When this message is reinforced for years, it becomes what seems like a natural attitude for girls.
This has an effect on career choices, too! By encouraging a less active lifestyle, girls’ clothing limits the amount of opportunities girls have to practice pursuing goals on a small scale during play. Additionally, images on girls clothes like hearts and small animals tend to promote an ability to empathize, which demonstrates and contributes to society placing emotional responsibility on girls. Carrying this weight guides girls towards majors and careers where they can utilize that skill, such as the humanities, or care-giving and service careers.
Example 3: Media
While movies, TV shows and books have a wider variety of gender neutral story lines, the gender divide still exists in media today. Boys and girls sometimes wouldn’t be caught dead watching or reading content that was marketed for the other gender. I once saw a pair of brothers at the movies sneaking out of Frozen, high fiving at their timely escape from witnessing musically performed female empowerment.
Not only do the same issues of underlying messages occur in the portrayal of boys and girls in media, but they are even more important on these platforms because characters serve as role models for specific occupations, attitudes, and actions.
And it’s not like girls and boys are even portraying stereotypical roles at the same rates. Male characters are more likely to be leads, have more screen time, and more speaking time than females, even in kids movies.
To make matters worse, one study found that “in family films, 81% of the jobs are held by male characters” and that in “STEM fields… the ratio of male to female characters is 15:1.” The scientists who conducted this study also noted that when CSI shows like Bones came out, the rates of women studying forensic science skyrocketed. Imagine what popular kids (or young adult) TV shows portraying women in STEM could do. Let’s work from the ground up by encouraging interest and confidence in fields where women are missing from a young age.
Example 4: Praise and Double Standards
Have you ever done the same thing as a male but gotten a different response? I used to be a camp counselor, and I once had the glorious task of giving a bratty tweenage boy a time-out for shoving someone. He called me bossy, refused to listen, and I was forced to get a male coworker to tell him the exact same thing I had just said to him. My boss had some words with his father at pick-up, but I was left dumbfounded and in disbelief at how early on this trope is established. Girls in positions of authority are NOT bossy. Cue Beyonce.
One of my theories about why kids pick up on these discriminatory attitudes is because boys and girls are praised differently for the same behaviors.
This prejudice is super dangerous in the workplace for a couple reasons. First, it forces women to rely on male backup in their decisions, just like I had to do to put that kid in his place. Calling women bossy instead of recognizing their authority makes them dependent on men, which we obviously loathe here at Make Muse. Secondly, the labeling of assertive women as abrasive damages their chances at landing jobs and getting promotions. Just look at our current political scene and you’ll see the harm double standards can inflict on women’s careers.
Example 5: Role Models IRL
It is clear that women are under-represented in a ton of careers, from STEM fields, to carpentry, firefighting, piloting, finance, law, politics, and as our girl Reese points out, business. Even head chefs are mostly male in the US, despite the emphasis placed on women knowing how to cook.
We can’t expect this gap to change at a satisfactory rate if girls aren’t exposed to women who have smashed these standards already. These women exist! And we should talk about them both in the context of their important contributions and their ability to blaze a path for others to follow. This could inspire young girls to brave uncharted territory for women in their own areas of interest, and make it easier for girls to see themselves in nontraditional careers for women.
What Can You Do?
It’s obvious that parents have their work cut out for them, and that media producers, toy vendors, and clothing stores have a lot of responsibility to take charge of this issue. But what can young women do to dismantle the gender stereotypes that are molding young girls, and eventually disadvantaging women in the workplace?
I have a few suggestions. Raise awareness about the issue! Don’t keep quiet about the biases you notice in the movies you watch with friends. Ask your parents what they think about gendered toys or commercials. Open up a dialogue with the people you care about.
Do you have little cousins or babysit? Be conscious of the media you expose them to, for both boys and girls. If you’re still in school, you can apply this to your own life. Note the inclusion of influential women on your syllabi and respectfully talk to your teachers about it if it’s looking lackluster. By college, you have dealt with this your whole life, and now you are actively preparing to enter a career of your choosing. If you have room in your schedule, push yourself to take at least one STEM class or a class dominated by dudes. For me, I took a couple computer science classes and biochemistry of food! Now, I can at least participate better in conversations with my friends that are majoring in those areas. These classes gave me new perspectives to approach studying English.
I’m not ready to jump ship and become an engineer, but it might not be too late for some of you! The bottom line is, we are not powerless here, and even calling out something that seems small, or taking a class out of your society-molded comfort zone could have a big impact.