Saturday, 9 July 2011

Yet More Gender Stereotyping

Nothing like a good old dose of rage on a Saturday morning to drag me out of my melancholy. Friend of mine Wendy posted this to Facebook first thing, along with a comment that it was "one of the most offensive articles I have ever read". She's written to the BBC to complain, and I will be following suit. The article is entitled "Sugar and spice and all things nice", and I have highlighted one of the more troubling aspects for me and my fellow palaeontologists:

If you can't see it too well, it says "So what's it like to swap muddy football boots and dinosaurs for all things pink[...]?".

For starters it is quite a non-story in any case (seriously BBC - aren't there more important things happening at the moment that could benefit from more attention?). But what is all this about swapping dinosaurs for "pink things"? Are girls not allowed to like mud, or sport, or dinosaurs? Holy shit. I have already informed pinkstinks, as I imagine they'll have one or two things to say on the matter.

The gender stereotyping begins, of course, as soon as babies are born. I was annoyed to see the above juxtaposition at my local garden centre, and when my cousin gave birth to a boy, I scoured three card shops for a congratulations card that wasn't blue, before giving in to the stereotype. My mother sympathised, and in fact my parents did an exceptional job of avoiding stereotypes. They never defined my role or told me what I should be, except, of course, anything I wanted to be. This was how I was dressed (and later dressed myself) for most of my childhood:

I was given as gender-neutral a childhood as possible - I was allowed dolls, teddy bears, tea party sets, and also trucks, dinosaurs and building blocks. As was my brother. My parents are still inordinately proud of the fact that I broke a Tonka truck - they were supposed to be indestructible. My dad would later take me in to school with him during holidays and at weekends, and we'd play on the computers (BBC Micro FTW!), light the Bunsen burners and poke at the skeleton. There was never any question about whether science was something girls did. Science was something I did.

I'm painfully aware that there are gender stereotypes about and within science. Within our department, female students underperform relative to the male students, by a significant margin. I have been tasked with forming a committee to promote female achievement within our subject area. Very few girls take physics AS, and none of them carry it on to A2 at the moment. Biology and chemistry are fairly even. The girls are picking up "soft" subjects, such as psychology and sociology (not my definition - the universities'!). This may be affecting their chances of good university places. In an ideal world we'd like the universities to stop being so up themselves, but it won't happen, and I do concede that really a prospective medical or veterinary student should be doing four full A-levels in biology, chemistry, maths and physics.

It may be a bit of a leap to say that saying pink is for girls and blue is for boys is responsible for female underachievement at advanced level in science, but it is surely a contributing factor. Denying girls access to some of the easiest means of hooking them into science because it's masculine and for boys only tells them that science is for boys. Anyone who was involved with this week's #SciTeachJC has discussed the gender imbalance to some extent, and the paper we looked at does highlight gender differences in the perception of science as a career.

Nevertheless, I have a bit of a monumental task ahead of me, and it really isn't being helped at all by throwaway sexist comments like the BBC have made.

PS: Added in the paragraph above about #SciTeachJC because it is a) relevant and b) awesome.


  1. Gah! I think I had a similar set of childhood toys to you, but detested dolls. The pink thing upsets me so much, as does the mud and dinosaurs thing. I defined science to KS4 yesterday as exploring the physical universe through experimentation, measurement and observation. Looks like society is pushing boys to do this exploration via mud and dinosaurs while girls are pushed to live in some fictitious bullshit universe of fairy princesses. A reality check is long overdue.

    PS sorry to hear about the abstract.

  2. So, what they're suggesting by extension is that I can't be taken seriously as a palaeontologist on the days I wear pink, because you can't do both? What an absurd and offensive article.

  3. Male of the species; sorry!9 July 2011 at 20:05

    Frankly, as far as I am concerned, there are more important things to get worked up about. Come on, '...the most offensive article I have ever read'? Seriously? If that were true, I would recommend the reader widen their horizons...

  4. Firstly, you have misquoted my friend - she said it was one of the most offensive articles she had ever read, not the most offensive article. Do you work for News International?

    Secondly, it is not my friend who should widen her horizons, it is you. I would not expect you, as someone with (I presume, given that you are from a not especially racially diverse area of the north-west of England) white, male privilege, to understand the consequences of perpetuating such gender stereotypes. It is precisely stereotypes such as these which are preventing young women from fulfilling their potential in education. Or perhaps you think all women should be uneducated - barefoot and pregnant?

    The fact that you do not have the testicular fortitude to identify yourself indicates that you know that your attitude is a shameful one to hold, and that you would quite rightly receive a far worse drubbing from male and female readers of this blog alike if you had the balls to stand up and be counted.

    This is the sort of cowardice that's been shown in response to Rebecca Watson's situation, and yet another reason why some men should think before they open their big sexist mouths.


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