Cultural Values in a Time Warp

At the start of the year I wrote about my frustrations with the slow pace of change, specifically with regard to the situation for women in science in academia but also more broadly. This week I am forcibly reminded again how slowly our society changes and this time it’s the case of how it impacts on young children. Impact on them means impact on their choices and what they become as adults.  It is depressing.

The first story arose from a study which shows that girls as young as six decide that girls aren’t ‘really, really smart’ whereas boys are. It got a lot of media coverage. It is a study based on not a very large number of children, of fairly middle class origin based in the US, so you can quibble over whether or not it is representative, but it nevertheless is fairly shocking as well as being useful concrete evidence about how our society evolves, or more accurately doesn’t. I got to voice my views on Radio5 on Friday  with Emma Barnett (21.42 minutes in), who clearly had got a very informed idea of the paper and its implications so that her questions were a pleasure to answer. Too often this is not the case in radio interviews where sensationalism rather than fact is sought! It is interesting that many of the reactions I have heard to the story – anecdote of course, not evidence – go along the lines of parents reflecting how early they have noticed their own children forming views of what men and women can and cannot do from the toddler stage on, generally in standardly and boringly stereotyped ways. Parents can do their best to fight society’s ‘values’, but the messages bombard children from TV, books, relatives, playgroup and (nursery) school. As further evidence I cite below shows, even those who try hard seem doomed to get it horribly wrong.

Why does it matter if six year old girls no longer believe they are likely to be ‘really, really smart’? (Interestingly, the change from when boys and girls are considered equivalent to this viewpoint seemed to happen between 5 and 6.) Just think what options this can close off to them. Apparently becoming a physicist is likely to be one of them, since popular wisdom decrees that physics is difficult and can only be done by the intellectual whizzkids. It doesn’t matter if that belief is true, if it is a message swallowed whole by the kids it is likely to close off paths very swiftly. Close them off not because of aptitude or interest, but because of self-belief or rather lack thereof. Since too many interventions, about physics, maths or any other subject, tend only to come at secondary school, perhaps not till GCSE years, it is clear that these will be at least six years too late to be effective. That conclusion is a clear message that our educators and policy-makers need to grasp if we are to crack the issue of girls not opting for the physical sciences, maths, computing and engineering.

So what about the interest angle amongst girls? Can toy manufacturers help to encourage an interest, let’s say in engineering. Here enters the second story this time about a Barbie spin-off. I heard about this story initially because clearly if a journalist types in pink, Barbie and science my name gets thrown up by Google as a result of my throwaway comments in my BSA Presidential Address  (even though I’m no longer the BSA President by now). Consequently a Telegraph journalist, Katie Morley contacted me for my views after she’d attended a toy convention. Here a Barbie being created by toy company Thames and Kosmos  was deemed to be ‘engineering Barbie’. She came equipped with things she could build: a washing machine, a dress, a movable clothes hanger…. In other words the manufacturers couldn’t get beyond the idea that girls – even if being generously permitted to build things – should stick with the domestic sphere. The shortsightedness, the inappropriateness of the stereotyping (did I mention the objects were, of course, all pink?) clearly had not impinged on the creators.

How many times do we have to revisit the idea that if talent is to flourish it mustn’t be restricted to outdated ideas of what is suitable? It isn’t sufficient for Thames and Kosmos to crawl forward to a position where Barbie is allowed to be an engineer; she has to be allowed to build things across the spectrum of what might be useful. There’s obviously nothing wrong with building washing machines, but the choice of rockets, or cars, or bridges or robots should also be on the menu. Laura Bates in the Guardian, as ever succinct and to the point, dissected this new failure neatly. She reminded readers of the classic case of getting things wrong of the EU’s Science it’s a Girl Thing video, pulled in about 24 hours after mass objections so you can only find snippets remaining on the web. If you can bear to watch this you will see the video not only involved pinkification, but lipstick and high heels to compound the error. Other attempts have similarly floundered on stereotypes of the worst kind: EDF called its campaign ‘Pretty Curious’  to some derision, although the content isn’t all bad and this is probably the best of a bad lot; IBM came up  with #hackahairdryer therefore also condemning the girls to domesticity. Lego has similarly pinkified those sets designed specifically for girls, an error I targeted on this blog five years ago.

With such a long list of prior stereotyping disasters, how is it possible for another company to enter the fray and get it so badly wrong? Why is it so difficult for manufacturers to grasp the fact that girls are not only (and possibly not at all) interested in fashion and domesticity. Conversely boys may not all be gung-ho for pirates, rockets, dinosaurs and violence. Why can’t children be children just as much as toys be toys? Instead the company has another PR disaster on its hands, even if Barbie engineer is purchased in significant numbers. Culturally we are simply and unbelievably still stuck in a stereotyped time warp. My frustration mounts…..2017 is not going to be a good year if the first few weeks are the indicator, not good on so many fronts of which pinkification and stereotyping are just one tiny corner. (I am only too aware that in comparison with some of the disgusting things currently happening around the world, to which this title might also apply, they could be regarded as but mere irrelevant hiccoughs.)

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5 Responses to Cultural Values in a Time Warp

  1. Rachel Hilliard says:

    You are probably aware of the work being done by the campaign.

    My young daughters (8 and 5) have both brought up the unequal treatment of male a female characters in television programmes. BBC programmes like GoJetters and Octonauts have make characters front and centre, and in the majority, whereas the female characters are in a minority and relegated to a support role.

  2. NQ says:

    @Rachel: I distinctly remember my mum telling me as a small child to watch male-fronted TV (and books etc) when my younger brother was watching with me, because “he doesn’t want to see girls’ things”… I was born in the 90’s.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    There is another factor, which is that children around this age also learn these behaviours from their peers. It was on the BBC Breakfast programme earlier this week I think and the child psychologists who had previously been studying the children as individuals were for the first time looking at their behaviour in single-sex groups. Unfortunately this programme is not available on the iPlayer, but if you asked the BBC they could tell you who they were.

  4. Edward Jones says:

    “the fact that girls are not only (and possibly not at all) interested in fashion” Really? Or do I misunderstand you? There is much I do not understand in this “postmodern” world but as a grandfather, to two girls I am keenly concerned about their future and so I wonder if the zealous drive of feminism is not contributing too much to the restructuring of traditional roles, thereby adding to theirs and my confusion. Gender neutral terms defining all children as ‘guys’ seem to suggest to some girls that to be competitive and successful they must be as masculine as possible. A recently extreme example of this phenomena is that of Julia Vins, the 18 years old Russian weight trainer, “pretty and blonde, with luscious lips and muscles bigger than most guys”.

    • NQ says:

      No one here seems to me to be saying girls (or boys) aren’t or shouldn’t be interested in fashion. However, marketing seems to imply that that’s all they care about. Try a) getting a chemistry set for girls that doesn’t cater to this stereotype, and/or b) getting a “gender-neutral” kids’ chemistry set that has a girl as the major face on the box.

      Also, a lot of women (I don’t personally, but) hate being called ‘guys’ collectively.

      Sadly, a completely different point unrelated to children is that I think there really is a lot of pressure to be a man. I felt it to an extreme in my last lab. Me not being a man seemed to cause a lot of friction between me and the boss, amongst other things.

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