Feminism: Pink Things and STEM Retention Rates

[Content Note: Misogyny]

So two things were brought to my attention this week and I want to talk about the intersection between them.

First was this line of Katniss-inspired (quite a lot of the marketing reporting explicitly called out The Hunger Games, though I realize that Bow Chicks have been a thing for a long time) Nerf toys from Hasbro which are inexplicably doused in pink. The bows, the marketing material, the tie-in video game, the girls USING the bow in the marketing material: all pink. VERY pink. (Hat-tip to Elliott Mason, thank you.)

I don't really think there's anything I can say about the above that isn't a short-but-stinging treatise on how children (including, but not limited to, girl children) need to be free to play with whatever toys they want for whatever reason they want without having to resign themselves to a single color palette just because they were assigned a girl-gender and/or just because they like the "girl-gendered" toys.

This treatise would also include the stunningly obvious point that Katniss and Merida and the other ladies who have no doubt inspired this new toy-line have never (to my knowledge) expressed any kind of preference for pink, and would probably also contain some swears. And I don't really know that I want to write out that treatise because this is feeling like a very tilting-at-windmills moment, like all I should really have to say is this shit is bullshit and that would pretty much cover it all.

So instead I'd like to tie in a video that a friend sent me yesterday, which has an interesting message that on closer examination seems to be two messages inexpertly combined. I'll link the video here:

Message #1 of this video seems to be that girls deserve variety in their toy choices. I'm down with that. And Message #2 of this video seems to be that girls deserve to be allowed interest in STEM fields. I'm down with that, too.

But the combination of the message appears to be that toy variety will somehow increase female presence in the STEM fields, as though the only thing keeping women out of STEM fields is a lack of desire, with desire having been leached off in the teenage years under the crushing ennui of pink Nerf guns. And... I'm not down with that part.

This is a stupendously awesome commercial from a toy company called GoldieBlox, which has developed a set of interactive books and games to “disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.” The CEO, Debbie Sterling, studied engineering at Stanford, where she was dismayed by the lack of women in her program. (For a long look at the Gordian knot that is women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields, check out this New York Times article from October.) As the GoldieBlox website attests, only 11 percent of the world’s engineers are female. Sterling wants to light girls’ inventive spark early, supplementing the usual diet of glittery princess products with construction toys “from a female perspective.”

And here I'm going to speak personally for a moment. I am a lady in a STEM field, and I went through the necessary schooling and training to acquire a STEM job. I saw what that training did to me and to the other girls who enrolled. I saw how the teachers treated us. I saw how we had to be twice as good as the boys in order to be considered half as competent. I saw how our good grades were seen as proof that the teachers were interested in us sexually, and not proof of our own merits. I saw how my male schoolmates called me lesbian and feminist like those were the worst things I could be, and they were careful to let us hear how they would only ever date girls from the art building, or from the hairstyling school downtown, and how they would never, ever, marry another engineer.

I've seen at my own work the toll it takes to live in a STEM field as a woman, and why so many women leave. I've seen men congratulated for leaving work early to work on a Ph.D. or to train for a bicycle race, but women castigated for going home to cook dinner or tend small children. I've seen countless men lose their tempers and scream until they are red in the face in meetings, while women who raise their voices even the slightest are immediately branded as bitches who are impossible to work with. I've seen male managers gossip with male employees about the sex lives of their female co-workers, and I've seen those men "warn" each other away from us. I've seen, just this week, a male colleague old enough to be my father make blow-job jokes about me when I had to use the team vacuum cleaner to clear bugs away from my desk.

And I've seen how older men can get away with the blow-job jokes because they're From A Different Era, and how younger men can get away with the blow-job jokes because they're Too Young To Know Better and how all this practically sums up to the fact that if I want to work in a STEM field, I have to be willing to put up with blow-job jokes. And I have to be willing to do that while I'm the only woman in a room full of 30 people, which is its own special brand of loneliness. If I leave the STEM fields -- and there are so many days when I fantasize about doing precisely that -- it won't be because I wasn't sufficiently coddled with Rube Goldberg* toys. It'll be because sexism drove me the fuck out.

And I'd like to see that acknowledged just a little bit the next time we talk about female representation in STEM fields. Because, goddammit, it's not just about encouraging girls to step through the door. It's about being open and honest about what's on the other side of that door that causes so many women to step right back out again. Women aren't stupid, and we're not going to think a mire of sexism and misogyny is really a pasture of rainbows just because it's marketed that way. And focusing on entrance rates with no focus whatsoever on retention rates is a way of making this whole thing one more Exceptional Woman hoop, where Good Women go into science fields and we just need more Good Women. That isn't going to solve the fact that Good Women are leaving science fields because of socially-acceptable misogyny bullshit.

But I guess "don't fucking tell blow-job jokes at work" doesn't bring in money like "innovative, non-pink toys". And that's okay, really, I want innovative non-pink toys because variety. Just don't tell me that's going to affect STEM rates because the "real" problem with STEM rates is because girls just aren't trying hard enough because they wanna be princesses instead. Because that's just not true.

And while I'm not trying to be uncharitable, I feel like I have to point out that Goldie Blox, who I'm sure is a lovely character, already has waaaaaaaay more privilege than I do and would probably fare slightly better in a STEM field than I, because she's already got the lily-white, golden-blond, conventionally-attractive, bodily-thin thing down. In fact, she looks an awful lot like Kim Possible, the other big STEM-friendly power-girl character famous enough for me to be aware of.

I'm thinking that if the whole goal for all this is to interest girls more in STEM fields by having a friendly mascot demonstrate how possible it all is, there might be value in having some, you know, variety in our mascots.

Because the variety-problem doesn't start and stop with everything being pink and purple.

* P.S. I totally hate Rube Goldberg machines and their correlation in the public consciousness with "engineer". An engineer who designs things to be as needlessly complex as possible is usually Doin' It Wrong. Just had to get that off my chest.


Post a Comment