Choice not Dogma

Last week a writer for the Financial Times joined the club of those journalists who seem to think there is some awful plot out there to force young girls to study science. Not so long ago it was Cristina Odone, who wrote an article in the Telegraph headlinedMy daughter shouldn’t have to study science‘ followed up by ‘Too many girls are pressurised into taking ‘STEM’ subjects just to appease feminists’. (I took exception to the original Odone article here).

This most recent article, by Izabella Kaminska in the FT was actually tackling a slightly different problems. She was complaining about new advertising guidelines which are designed to reduce the stereotyping long familiar in ways men and women are portrayed. She argued that we shouldn’t see only non-traditional roles as ‘healthy’ and that ‘Liberation for women and men is about choice not dogma’, which was the title of her piece. I’m all in favour of choice not dogma, but that has to be a choice about everything and not tied in with cherry-picking parts of the landscape.

The relevance to encouraging girls into science (or not) arises because these new guidelines have been linked to the study demonstrating just how shockingly young girls decide boys are smarter than them – around 6 – which later impacts on which careers and subjects they think are ‘suitable’ for them. It was a small-scale study, and I hope more work will explore the phenomenon on a much larger scale, but it was certainly a deeply depressing one. Kaminska, however, interprets the response to the study like this:

…exposure to traditional portrayals of women could be a factor behind women’s under-representation in so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Girls, they argue, take their cues from those media messages about becoming ballerinas rather than engineers. This assumes that because I watched adverts featuring Nanette Newman advocating the merits of Fairy washing-up liquid over other brands, I was more likely to veer away from science or technology.

In order to justify that she, personally, didn’t want to be a scientist she has darwn a meaningless conclusion based on what looks like a wilful misunderstanding of the study and the guidelines. Powerful female journalists, like Odone and Kaminska, can be great writers but clearly suffer from anxiety about their chosen careers. Why else do they try to imply because they (or in the former’s case, her daughter) don’t like science personally then, by extrapolation, we shouldn’t be encouraging girls to study STEM subjects?

I could give a feminist reading of encouraging girls into STEM – regardless of the ‘choice not dogma’ point of view — by stressing if girls are to grow up into adults who don’t need to rely on a man to be the breadwinner, a STEM career is a lot more reliable for bringing in the cash than journalism. But that really isn’t the point. The point is that if girls only see the woman at the kitchen sink with the Fairy liquid, only get given dolls to play with passively and conversely only see men in hard hats or coding computers, they are likely to think that’s the way it is and they have to conform. It doesn’t take much for conformity to seem like the norm. I remember a nine year old girl asking me, at the time that Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister, was it possible for a man to be a prime minister? All her life, in as far as she had been aware of politics at all, Thatcher had been at the helm. Thatcher was a woman hence that must be a requirement.

I don’t understand how a journalist can headline a piece about choice and then go on to say that ‘Even so, academically, I always orientated towards the arts. Not because I had been brainwashed: those were the subjects I was good at and enjoyed.’ Where does brainwashing come in? Given the IOP’s evidence on girls’ progression to A level physics in mixed versus single sex schools (spoiler: girls are twice as likely to do the A level if they go to a single sex school), where does she really believe the brainwashing is going on? Does she not believe, that for generations girls have been ‘brainwashed’ into thinking they don’t want to be engineers? It has nothing to do with who washes the dishes (or at least loads the dishwasher).

A recent video clip put out by the BBC also gives clues as to why children’s views on life get coloured so early on. It shows adults playing with young children dressed, not according to gender but against the stereotype. So a little boy in a dress is handed pink dolls to play with; a girl in blue is given the robot and picked up and put on a toy horse. Not statistically significant, to put it mildly, nevertheless it is a damning indictment on how random strangers stereotype babies and interact with them accordingly. I will try to catch up with the full programme soon. Angela Saini debunks a lot of the myths that perpetuate the acceptance of crude stereotyping in her recent superb book Inferior, reviewed by my fellow OT blogger Stephen Curry over on the Guardian. The evidence for the ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ view of life and biological determinism (or perhaps in this context I mean a version of the book titled ‘Men are born Engineers, women are journalists’ reworking of the same concept) is sparse at best.

But, just as bad as dividing the human race simply into two gendered stereotypes, lurking beneath the Odone and Kaminska mindset is the idea that science is somehow in opposition to the humanities. I took exception to that position in my article challenging the Odone viewpoint Why do these journalists need to imply that we live in a zero sum game so that if I claim to be a scientist I cannot enjoy music, literature or art? By all means let us live by choice not dogma, but please can we also ensure that we don’t pigeonhole the population into either A or B, whatever those categories might be. I would plead for allowing everyone not only choice between two options, but a bit of everything if that’s what takes their fancy.

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