Have you come across the T shirts with the encouraging words
I’m too PRETTY to do MATH
blazoned across them in cute pink lettering? No, nor had I until they were brought to my attention by a member of the London Mathematical Society. The LMS is not happy about these products, and I can’t say I blame them. But how do you do anything effectively about them? Such as get them withdrawn from sale?
Maybe the LMS can learn something from the tale of the Barbie doll and her involvement with maths (this is the UK, so I won’t call it math!). About 20 years ago the manufacturers of Barbie, Mattel, produced a doll which said
Math class is tough.
There was quite a lot of fuss in the US. The Barbie Liberation Organisation doctored dolls (and also the ‘boy’s toy’ GI Joe) swapping their phrases around and returning the altered dolls to the toy store shelves. The shops then resold them to children who had to invent scenarios for Barbies who yelled “Vengeance is mine!” and G.I. Joes who daydreamed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”. “Call your local TV news” stickers on the back ensured that the media would have genuine recipients to interview as soon as the news broke. By 1992 the dolls had the offending phrase about math removed from their vocabulary, as written up by the business press.
Fast forward to 2010 and we have Computer Engineer Barbie on the market as versatile and eternally youthful Barbie’s 126th career option. Her accessories, still tastefully pink, were apparently chosen (as Mattel points out) with the help of the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering. Her figure is as woman-defyingly impossible as ever, and her footware makes no concession to the practicalities of most workplaces, but I guess this is progress of sorts.
But we won’t get girls thinking about computing or engineering as a career, as long as pre-teens are bombarded with messages saying that maths does not happily coexist with their femininity. That if they do maths they are by definition not ‘pretty’ – so their future lives will, by implication, be devoid of boyfriends and happiness. What can be done to stop these products (not just T-shirts, but also socks and mobile phone covers apparently, as a quick bit of googling showed up) being available? Can some people-power, as was brought to bear on Mattel, stop DavidandGoliath marketing these offensive objects? The company’s byline may say that
our apparel is stupid
but I think most pre-teens’ sense of irony will not be developed enough to appreciate the message that is being touted should not be taken literally. I am heartened to see that Mumsnet are in on the act of writing letters of complaint and my guess is they are a pretty formidable campaigning tool. But if anyone has bright ideas about what the LMS might care to do, or how to kickstart a bit of direct action of their own, Gwynneth Stallard is the Chair of the LMS Women in Mathematics Committee.
Not completely unrelated, I have just come across a recent analysis of advertisements for boys’ and girl’s toys, which highlights just what subliminal – or perhaps not-so-subliminal – messages are being directed at both children and their parents through the medium of ads. Word clouds for the two sexes presents a very visual way of seeing what messages the children will be receiving. Guess what, the top two words for boys are ‘battle’ and ‘power’, whereas for girls it’s ‘love’ and ‘magic’! You’d never believe the two sexes lived in the same world, experiencing the same challenges given such massive differences in what is thought appropriate to put the emphasis on. But if girls are expected to thrive on magic rather than power, and use that to get them to the top, I’m afraid equality is a long way off and we won’t be seeing a steep rise in girls pursuing maths and science careers.