Part Three: Society and Gender


Image courtesy of Thomas Life.


We’ve talked earlier in this series about how gender norms are influenced by parents first. I took issue with the idea that we can completely insulate our kids. While it’s a great goal to always strive for equality in the household, this is pretty impossible for most people. In fact, I would say that it is impossible as soon as you start to introduce your kids to extended family and friends. These people will have different ideas about gender than you and some of these ideas will be contrary to the goal of inequality. This is inevitable. Some will say “but, but, my family strives for this, too”. That’s great. And even if that is 100% the case, eventually your kids will go out into the world. They will turn on a TV or see something on a screen (blogs like this one, perhaps, will have completely replaced print media and magazines of olden times by the time my daughter is old enough to read), children will learn to internalize “difference”. That is the topic of today’s blog.

We’ve already discussed, to some extent, how this has filtered into our lives through toys. Whether presented by relatives (probably the first place we see gendered toys) or by an aisle at Target or Walmart, our children learn “blue is for boys and pink is for girls”. This sort of thing is made even more apparent the minute you turn on a television. We don’t have cable at our house. We have a variety of apps which definitely cuts down on the ads the kids will see but even then, when we watch our antenna stations, they will see tons of ads aimed at kids. Thus, the idea of insulating children from gender stereotypes is impossible from any age where they start consuming media. And, lets face it, even though we try to stop a lot of screen time from happening, my 3 month old watched a lot of hockey this weekend.

The affect of advertising on women is well-known. I will not get into the down and dirty of all of this because if you are reading this blog, it stands a good chance you have some idea about how women are viewed in society – they are passive, their worth is often tied up in their outside presentation, and they are expected to be “hormonal” and “irrational”. Watching TV and consuming media will begin to influence them from an early age. It is unavoidable.

School further complicates the gender continuum. Even by preschool, it seems there is a gap in the sorts of things that kids do. Gender segregation starts early. It first seems to manifest in play.  Teachers can contribute to these issues by encouraging girls to do typical female gendered activities (dress up, playing “house”), while they can encourage boys to play more active games like “building” and “construction”.  Bigler and Lieben (2006) found that teachers were found to reinforce more gender norming through using “girls” and “boys” as categories to sort children into. If kids begin to internalize these differences as overly important, they learn to self segregate from an early age.  Martin and Fabes (2001) observed that after 6 months of pre-school curriculum, there was an even greater preponderance for sorting by gender.

At about the same time, the gender gap in STEM begins. Girls start to say they are bad at math before they hit middle school and way before they choose a major in college. We tend to think of this gap in types of learning in older children but recent research suggests it is much sooner.  A study conducted by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) showed that by kindergarten, girls were less likely to rate themselves as “good” at math than boys.  AERA cited similar evidence to what other studies had found.  Teachers may reinforce these ideas unconsciously through selecting more boys to answer questions or be more likely to recommend boys for STEM-associated tasks.

This gap, though, keeps happening. Women in STEM fields (such as myself even in social science since I was trained in extensive quantitative methods) are a rarity still. According to the U.S. Dept of Commerce, women only hold 25% of stem jobs – far below parity as they make up about half of the workforce in the U.S. – and only 1 in 7 engineers is female.  While things have improved since my mom started as a drafter working in an engineering capacity, she is still the lone woman in her work group. Women just aren’t represented. They may be highly recruited for this reason but they often stay out of these fields. Again, girls and women have so internalized that they are “bad” at math at a young age that they feel like these sorts of careers aren’t “for them”.

Why does this matter? I’m not saying that majoring in English or the arts is bad. We need artists and musicians and writers. For what it is worth, my husband and I have reversed this trend. He majored in English and Sociology and I majored in something still considered a STEM discipline (political science). I like solving programming issues and doing quantitative stuff. He really likes to write and read. He’s still a tinkerer, though. I think you can still be a well-rounded person in either STEM or the arts. I don’t mean to demonize the pursuit of a less numbers-based curriculum. In fact, I would say my gender studies and philosophy course were essential in teaching me to analyze things and think more critically than I was prepared for in most of my political science courses. I also learned to write there. I did not learn to write in political science (even though I attempted to teach my methods students how to use grammar and diction and sometimes failed). I am by no means a fantastic writer. My husband is often terribly critical of my use of adverbs (see what I did there?). Still, I try to get my point across and use proper grammar occasionally. Writing a dissertation is a true test of one’s persuasive writing and organizational skills.

I argue, though, there are issues with women being confined to the arts. First of all, STEM fields are highly-paid and tend to lead to good, stable paychecks. On average, STEM majors graduating with Bachelor’s degrees earn significantly more than their peers.  Recent data show that students graduating with a liberal arts degree earn about 20,000 less than those in STEM fields and those in STEM earn, on average 10,000 more in a starting salary than the average person with a BA or BS.

If you want to have more gender equality in the home, it would be silly not to address the role that being a breadwinner or equal earner pays. Two of my sister-in-laws both work high-powered jobs alongside their husbands. One is an engineer who has made substantially more than her husband due to, in his words, being a better study and having more drive. The other is a business leader who is currently managing a start up and travels regularly. Neither has children but both set good examples for our daughters in terms of having equality in gender in the household. If a problematic aspect of household gender equality comes back to a lack of value in domestic labor, an equal split in terms of economic capabilities and abilities seems to be a short-term solution to this issue that will help all women. This is not to say being a stay-at-home person is bad at all. However, the more women working these jobs, the more opportunities for women to be visible earners, capable employees, and, eventually, a greater ease should arise for men to choose to stay-at-home more often.

A second problem I plan to address with women not entering STEM fields or learning math is that we need women in all sectors of the workforce. We know that having women in workgroups leads to having more diverse ideas and can lead to greater productivity across the board. We also know that having women in high-powered positions can positively benefit women down the chain.  A recent Gallup study shows all of these benefits.. Although, I would argue, this should not be where we stop (contrary to Ms. Sandberg’s line of reasoning). There are definite merits, also, to women being engaged as the educators of the next generation of numbers-loving ladies. We know now that female math teachers are more positively associated with greater math achievement not only in girls but also boys (Stearns et. al 2016). Thus, from the bottom to the top, there are benefits to having women in STEM and not just in the arts.

Society can be a force for good or a force that will hold our daughters back. Insulating your kids is impossible. However, it starts at home. Knowing the issues will allow parents to help their daughters. It’s why I started early with a space-themed nursery for my kid rather than ballerinas or princesses. If she chooses to become a ballerina later on, we will love and support her, but I want to try to combat the idea that she is only relegated to fields where her body is judged and where her worth is tied up in subjective assessments of “self”. I want her to have a mind open to all possibilities. It won’t be perfect but it will let us work proactively instead of reactively. These are the challenges we face and we have to be prepared to head them off at the pass.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s