Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Where The Girls Are

Little under a week ago, I wrote about Danica McKellar's new book, Kiss My Math. A friend of mine wrote something that contained several ideas I want to address. And so, after asking permission (unlike the last time), here is the first of probably about three blogs stemming from that one comment -thus ensuring that she never comments again and making me very sad indeed.
 "I've both seen and read that women are more likely to go into the helping professions like teaching and nursing because as a whole they prefer to work with people, not stuck working on abstract concepts. I do agree that it's empowering to know math well enough to function and use it at work and in daily life without relying on technology, but there's a reason why engineering programs are mainly made up of men, and it's not because girls nowadays are discouraged from becoming engineers. It's just that that life often just isn't that appealing."
So says my friend. It is the constant debate of nature versus nurture, of whether behavior is borne in a vacuum. I disagree profoundly with the idea that girls "naturally" prefer to work with people, naturally gravitate toward careers like teachers and social workers and children's librarians. I very much think it is about how we, as a society, codify behaviors and how we, as a society, react to girls versus how we react to boys. Girls are, from the onset, more likely to be the one who is indoctrinated with the idea that they are the caregivers. Girls are advertised playsets with washers and dryers:

And they are the ones who are given dolls to care for and hug and hold. Women are the people responsible for putting supper on the table, and studies still continue to show that after all of this time, after many groups are declaring equality reached and feminism as having done its job so could it please just go away now, household chores are still incredibly inequitable; and parents, according to a 2006 study, are more likely to give girls more chores than boys -and are more likely to pay boys for the chores they are assigned.

Boys are hit with crap as well, as William Wants A Doll tells us:

Boys don't want to play with dolls, unless they're called "action figures", as we all know. And a few years ago, I read a Newsweek "My Turn" where a mother (who grew up watching Free to Be You and Me -and William's longing for a doll) got her sons dolls and saw them use them as projectiles and swords, and concluded in part that little boys are just engineered differently than little girls. But that doesn't take into account the pervasive normative culture that surrounds us; it doesn't take into account what we come into contact with every day of our lives as boys and as girls. Commercials show dads as being imbeciles in the kitchen, and show moms at home there. Teachers and preschools and television and interactions with other children's parents also help create a culture of gender normative behavior. And although the most enlightened of parents may want to create a gender neutral environment, unconscious reactions to children -talking more to girl babies, reacting more gently to girl babies, and being more active with boy babies- helps explain in part why girls start talking before boys and why boys start walking before girls.

Women and men may not be overtly pulled away from certain fields and pushed toward other fields (and I somewhat disagree with that as well, but I'll concede that it is nowhere near as bad as it once was), but there are still societal factors at work that make women a more likely candidate for a kindergarden teacher than a man. Anecdote: I didn't have a male teacher until seventh grade. And I don't think it is primarily because men naturally don't want to work with small children; I think it is because men who want to spend their days with small children are looked at with suspicion and are seen as being threatening. Not always, but often enough for the guy who was thinking about becoming an elementary school special education teacher to feel like he wouldn't succeed there, and years later joined the military instead (why, yes, I do know someone this happened to!).

Meanwhile, women are also the ones who are called most often for childcare. My father was often more available to pick me up than my mother, but whenever the nurse went to call someone I always had to remind her to call my father first. It was a constant battle, and one that is pervasive. Women are taught, through interactions with society, that their primary objective in life is to be centered around the family. Women are consistently interacted with as members of the caregiving community. For that reason, no one turns a head when I play with a child I've just become acquainted with in a park; but if a guy my same age were to do so, there would be questions asked.

There is a reason why girls have often felt they did not belong in math classes and science classes; and while I am ambivalent about Danica McKellar's technique, I admire what she is trying to do in attempting to change the message from "girls are good at caring for others" and "girls are good at languages and history" to "girls are good at math, can succeed in math, and can be fulfilled by math". I don't think every girl ever will suddenly want to become a mathematician or will want to work in a chemistry lab and be the next Marie Curie. But I also strongly believe that the reasons girls don't find abstract work as appealing has less to do with how girls naturally are and has more to do with how society views girls. I don't know enough about the subject to state definitively that there are no distinctly "girl" traits and no distinctly "boy" traits -and I suffer from a fair amount of liberal guilt that I was attracted to literature and made my home there instead of math and the hard sciences- but I absolutely do not believe that it accounts for as much as we constantly hear it does from baby books to magazines.

I will end with this: in the 1800s, it was important to teach boys to read and write, but it was only important to teach girls to read. In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a short story detailing how women were considered too delicate to be able to read or write for any length of time. My point? Women are always and forever being given what is seen as the lesser sphere of influence in western society and thought. It is embedded in the very fabric of how we think, and how we interact with others. I'm guilty of it as much as anyone else. But the argument about what is appealing and what isn't appealing for women in math and hard science seems very similar to language used at every other point in history when the intention was to prove that the woman who wanted out, who wanted to write or hold a job outside the home (if one happened to be white and middle class) was really just the odd one out. That only Betty Friedan suffered The Feminine Mystique.

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