Tue
Dec 6 2011 1:00pm

We Are Brains Before Beauty: Girls, Science and Confronting Society’s Blind Eye

Harvard has a series of Implicit Association Tests for anyone to try online. One of these tests is there to determine how you associate gender and science. To start, you are asked what your opinion is on those topics. Are men better at it, or do women equal them in every aspect? The test then has you categorize “male” and “female” terms alongside “science” and “liberal arts” terms. Based on the speed of your reaction, the test can tell you whether or not your subconscious makes gender associations with science.

Your humble blogger is ashamed to admit that she failed the test.

At least, in my own mind I did. According to the test, I have “moderate associations with men and science,” as well as women with liberal arts. Granted, they weren’t “strong” associations, but I would have preferred to come out as neutral as I consciously claim to be.

Many things could have affected this outcome: I come from a family of entertainers, and have clearly chosen a liberal arts path for myself. None of my female friends are particularly scientifically or mathematically minded. Most of my male friends were much better at math and science than I was in school. Then again, the genders of my math and science teachers over the years were relatively split down the middle. I was never discouraged from enjoying those subjects (though I did have some rotten teachers in high school). So why the subconscious betrayal?

Well… how are they selling it to us, ladies?

They’ve been cropping up all over the internet lately — a sea of sexist clothing and toys intended for girls. The first crisis came up over a shirt that JC Penny had for sale, decked out with the charming text, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” Then there was the “Allergic to Algebra” shirt. ThinkGeek has been kind enough to make the wearable rebuttal, but the damage has been done, and there are undoubtedly some little girls walking around wearing those demeaning adverts proudly. How could they know better?

Then Wild! Science came out with kits for kids that were color-coded — say it with me — pink for girls and blue for boys. But it didn’t stop there: the girls were encouraged to use science kits that allowed them to make perfume and bath bombs, the boys were encouraged to launch rockets, make slime, and do chemistry.

Now, some girls will ignore those labels and go for the kits that interest them most; I launched toy rockets with my dad as a kid. But some girls won’t. And more importantly, the fact that the pink kits feature only little girls on the boxes with adjectives like “beautiful” and “mystic” preceding them ensures that most boys won’t touch them. Even if making a crystal lagoon sounds like fun.

I’m not the first person to make this argument, but the problem goes so far beyond girls doing science and math. On the subway not long ago, I saw a mother with her two children. Her daughter was wearing plastic jewelry and her son was jealous: he wanted to wear some of it. His mother was clearly irritated, but instead of telling them that he couldn’t just have things that belonged to his sister, or asking her daughter to share, her comment was “No, you can’t have that. Those aren’t for boys.”

Nevermind the fact that I’ve met quite a few men who wear jewelry.

The Dangerous Books for Boys was a huge hit a few years back, and The Daring Book for Girls was quick to follow. But the while the girls book did contain useful information on how to change tires and start fires, I’m pretty sure that the boys book didn’t carry lessons for palm-reading or having a séance. Why? I read boys’ palms when I was a kid. They got a kick out of it. Guess that’s a “daring” activity, but not “dangerous” enough for them. The Dangerous Book for Boys, on the other hand, had lessons for building a treehouse.

You know what? I would have loved to build a treehouse. Why is there a different book for me? Couldn’t this be one mega book — The Daring and Dangerous Book for Kids?

It’s not just science. It’s not just math. It’s not just about girls being “too pretty” to do homework. (What does that even mean?) It’s about gender-coding every color, toy and activity that children do, to the point where disobeying those rules can lead to terrible consequences among their peers.

Or to put it another way, it’s about teaching our girls to sit still and be calm, and teaching our boys to beat each other with plastic weapons. As pointed out very succinctly in this essay, the toys we give to girls often teach them to be passive, to sit and socialize and do repetitive tasks. The toys we give to boys are hands on, they are active, often teaching aggression and competitiveness. Girls bake muffins, boys play war games.

Girls have séances. Boys build treehouses.

Does that affect how many women will eventually become scientists and mathematicians? It certainly isn’t the only defining factor, but you can bet it has a lot to do with it. After all, building a birdhouse could lead to a life in engineering. Playing with a toy rocket could lead to astronomy and astrophysics. There’s nothing wrong with becoming a baker or a fashion designer, but don’t you want every girl to be given all the options? Don’t you owe them that?

Though I’m upset at how my Implicit Associations Test turned out, I can honestly say that I was given those options. I had a pink tutu and a fairy wand and a tea set. I also had a plastic saber and cowboy six-shooters and a rock collection. I was never told that something was “for boys” and I couldn’t play with it or attempt it. And if that hadn’t been true, I would not be here writing this today. So we need to keep fighting, and call these things out when we see them.

Someone’s daughter is the next Cecilia Payne. She just needs the right science kit.


Emily Asher-Perrin had an Aladdin playset before the Jasmine playset. The Aladdin one was way cooler — it had a sword, a compass, and a magic lamp. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

39 comments
F Shelley
1. FSS
Is it ok if I have a crush on Amy Mainzer, Astrophysicist who sometimes appears on "The Universe" on the history channel? She is way hot and nerdy...
Ty Margheim
2. alSeen
I bought the Dangerous Book for Boys for use with my daughter.
Sim Tambem
3. Daedos
Unfortunately, marketing caters to consumers. If we buy it, they'll keep making it.

So I guess we are to blame. Shame on us.
JimD
4. JimD
...the toys we give to girls often teach them to be passive, to sit and socialize and do repetitive tasks. The toys we give to boys are hands on, they are active, often teaching aggression and competitiveness.
Hmmm. Sounds like the girls are learning the skills needed for science more than the boys.
JimD
5. Thoughts_on_Relient
@4
Perhaps I will give you science...but not engineering.
JimD
6. mutantalbinocrocodile
IATs can be pretty scary. I know--I was around when Harvard was developing them and I did a BUNCH of the early prototypes for money. I ended up doing the "Career/Family" one, and it's creepy how hard it is to dissociate women's names from familial words and with professional ones. Even if you are a professional woman.
Steven Halter
7. stevenhalter
The Daring and Dangerous Book for Kids?
That sounds great! I would buy that for my nieces & nephews.
Richard Fife
8. R.Fife
I will say that it seems it is more socially acceptable for a girl to have fun with boys toys than the other way around (such as you pointed out with the mom and the jewelry). I want to get both the "girly" kits for my sons as well as the "boys" kits just so they can do everything. I know that growing crystals would have peaked my interest as a kid just as much as making slime.
Karin L Kross
9. KarinKross
Several years back my mother dug up a bunch of my Letters to Santa that I had written when I was very small, and which hadn't been opened once in the *cough* years since. Turns out that in one letter, I'd asked for both the Barbie Malibu Camper Van and the Death Star playset, which kind of sums up the sort of child I was (and arguably the sort of adult I've grown up to be).

I would totally buy The Daring and Dangerous Book For Kids for all the little ones in my family, too.
Erik Amundsen
10. Bigerich
I don't think you should care very much for "failing" the test. I myself "passed", but "failed" another test, Weapons-Harmless Objects vs Black People-White People.

It told me I strongly associated Weapons with Black People, which is patently not true. In fact, the complete opposite is true! Lol.
JimD
11. Gerry__Quinn
Of course, if males really are more strongly associated with science in our society, you only failed the test if passing means having unconscious assumptions that are politically correct, but not in accordance with reality.
JimD
12. LM
I had the opposite result - slight association of women with science. I am a woman with a masters in science, and work in IT right now. What do you think is 'failing'? Anything that is not neutral? I don't think any kind of association is failing - if you are surrounded by male scientists and female liberal artists, you will probably have a strong association. But I don't think that necessarily means you believe that only males can be scientists and vice versa. I know there are other things I associate with women because I only happen to experience them when I am with my other women friends but I am intellectually aware of the fact that they themselves are gender neutral things.

However, I didn't feel this test was measuring anything, except the fact that I get very confused by right and left (it's a weird thing I have)...so who knows how accurate it is...
JimD
13. mirana
I got "slight association with males and science" but I think I was tired from trying some of the others before that one, ha.

In any event, I loved science and art when I was young. I do art for a living now, but I totally drove hours from my home this year to see science lectures from Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Lee Berger among others so... yeah. I have many family members and friends who are into science and art, male and female in either category. The associations we make aren't necessarily true, and it's good to know that there are many of us who are keeping retailers and others on their toes when they make them.
JimD
14. nicole1000
I would have found the test more interesting if it started out with an association of males/liberal arts and females/science rather than males/science and females/arts. would we see the same results?
stephanie keenan
15. adriel_moonstar
I followed the link to the IAT, and tried one because it sounded interesting. But truthfully I would say that the test itself was highly biased. It "teaches" the response system with the expected positive association, and then judges your response when you have to slow down to figure out a different pattern... I agree with nicole1000 @14.
JimD
16. SF
A problem with that test is it seems to be either/or - one gender has to be associated with science, and the other with liberal arts. I'm not sure that getting a result of strong association of female with science and male with liberal arts is any better than a strong association of female with liberal arts and male with science. Is history a less worthy field of profession than physics, to use two of their test words? Or is physics a less worthy field of profression than history? No.

Neither gender division presented by the test is really accurate, in my experience, at least in terms of aptitude, ability, etc. The test is pushing the test taker into a false set of choices.

The rest of the original post is worth thinking about, however.
JimD
17. GBM
As many of the commenters have pointed out in various ways, these IATs are flawed, testing much more than anything else the confusion and fatigue of people (their insistence on going 'fast') based upon the order in which questions and categories are presented. Re-order everything and everyone would get different results.
Matt London
18. MattLondon
@14 I'm going to say no absolutely not. This sort of test is just silly. It's right there in the follow-up questionnaire. What do you think most contributed to your result?

the order in which the category sorting tasks were presented

The test tricks you. The only way to do this properly would be to randomize the test so that some people get men right female left first, others the opposite, others who get men/science and women/arts first, and vice versa.

Anyone who has played a video game where X is the jump button, and then switch to a game wher Triangle is the jump button, is familiar with this phenomenon.

Thanks for another stimulating post, EAP.
Binyamin Weinreich
21. Imitorar
The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls were meant to be throwbacks to childhood experiences of the late 19th century. I'm not sure a complaint about their being unfeministic is valid.
Emily Asher-Perrin
22. EmilyAP
@9 - You are my favorite person. XD (Also, that sounds like exactly the sort of things I would have asked for, for Christmas. I'm pretty sure one year was a toy lightsaber and sewing materials.)

@14, 15 and 18 - That strange because when I started the test the first associations were exactly what 14 suggested: males with liberal arts and females with science. So it looks like that's randomized too, in which case that seems pretty fair to me.

@21 - If the throwback is speifically targeted at children, then yes, I would say the complaint is incredibly valid. (Also, it seemed as though the throwback was more aimed at recalling 1950s culture than the early 19th century.) Young children have no means of identifying the material as a throwback - only their parents do, and it's not likely that they would be explaining that to their kids beyond the "this is what I did when I was your age" comments. What they do see is a specific book for one gender and a specific book for another. There is no reason this is needed. And that's all without getting into how gender-equal the period in time they're harkening back to is (which is not at all).
Emily Asher-Perrin
23. EmilyAP
@12 - All very good points. I suppose "failing" might be too strong a term. And associations are inevitable; my real question is what exactly causes them? Is it just my personal experience with math and science, and the women I know? Or did society's associations play a part in my subconscious bias? Because that seems likely as well, and if that's the case, then some changes should probably be made to prevent those biases. Just because they may not damage some people consciously doesn't mean they won't damage others.

@16 - I wasn't intending to suggest that a career is history is less valid for a woman than a career in physics. What I was hoping to start a conversation about is how associating one gender with certain topics over another might discourage women who would otherwise have considered a career in science or math. What you see on a daily basis can greatly inform what you believe you are capable of.
Gerd K
24. Kah-thurak
I sometimes wonder - is this discussion our society is engaging in still about equality in the sense of equal rights and equal oppotunities - both important and valuable ideas - or has it distortet into a strange desire to make men and women identical? Everyone should be able to do as she/he wishes according to the same principles and laws. But if men and women - on average - have different interests and priorities is this really a bad thing?

Not that the points raised here are entirely without merit, but often they go a little far in my opinion. The fact that is is beeing discussed on a Fantasy and Sci Fi blog allready shows a hint of the zeal behind these ideas. It really is rather off topic but remains a recurring theme here.
Helen Peters
25. Helen
So am I the only mum on here that bought her son a doll and pushchair?

I slightly associate women with science and men with liberal arts. Though as I've always worked in a science lab and mainly with women that was probably a forgone conclusion.

I played with Sindy as a child, but was also the one who tied my brother's action man to its parachute and chucked it out the bedroom window. Both of us had hours of fun with Lego though.
JimD
26. SF
@23 - Oh, hey, didn't mean to suggest that you meant to suggest that. I was pointing to what the original test seemed to be suggesting. Sorry for the confusion. I got the point of your article and agree it's a good conversation to have.
JimD
27. CaitieCat
Excellent article, thank you so much for bringing this stuff up here. It's refreshing to read things that take on the gender bias in a direct way.
Melanie S
28. starryharlequin
GBM @17 and MattLondon @18, from the FAQ:
Because of this order effect, the orders used for IATs presented on this website are assigned at random. For any data we present, we are careful to be sure that half the test-takers got the A then B order and the other half got the B then A order.
Kah-thurak @24: If we get to the point where the differences between men and women on average are small enough to be accounted for by intrinsic preferences, I would be happy to have that discussion. But right now, for example, chemistry has about 35% female Ph.D.s and physics is 20%--there's nothing particularly more female-friendly about chemistry as a science that would make it doubly more likely that women would choose it. There must be something else going on. I will remain agnostic about the appropriateness to this blog, however :)
JimD
29. Never
I bought used copies of both the boy and girl books for my daughter, and shared them with my best friend's sons, as well. I also purchased both the "American Boy's Handy Book: What to Do and How to Do It" and the "American Girl's Handy Book: How to Amuse* Yourself and Others," to help give them ideas of what to do both indoors (primarily girls) and outside (primarily boys). The former teaches how to explore the world, while the latter teaches what to do with all the neat things one finds on a walk through the woods. Given their original publication dates, I'm not surprised at the gender bias, but the Dangerous/Daring books are too recent to be excused for their gender bias. For parents who want to avoid any gender labels slapped onto a book, try out "50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Child Do)", which features science, danger, and engineering. Also, by Daniel Carter Field, check out the "Field and Forest Handy Book". While its cover features boys, and the gender language is inherent in the book itself, it is less implicitly a boys-only book than his other handy guides, which clearly state their gender-bias in the titles.

It's not a perfect solution, but as a woman who grew up with Strawberry Shortcake AND Hot Wheels, with a daughter who plays with swords and boffers, roleplays being an adventurer, assembles robots from kits, and designs her own fashion, I think there's much to be discovered in those biased books, so long as the parents are willing to teach the kids to ignore the title and delve into the content.
JimD
30. Aubrey Winn
Awesome Article Emily - Thank you for writing this. In the science and medicine world realizing you are just as smart as the men is something we know and are told, but it is not easy to always internalize when we deal with this stuff ^^.
JimD
31. Gerry__Quinn
starryharlequin @ 28 says: "But right now, for example, chemistry has about 35% female Ph.D.s and physics is 20%--there's nothing particularly more female-friendly about chemistry as a science that would make it doubly more likely that women would choose it."

I'm not so sure: physics would seem to require a lot more advanced math to get anywhere, for example. Maybe that doesn't appeal to women.

And why would any unfounded societal biases apply more to physics than chemistry? Okay, I can think of possibilities: maybe physicists are especially unfriendly to women, or people see chemistry as akin to cooking, and thus relatively suitable for women ;-) But I'm inclined to think that it's more a case of people playing to their strengths.
JimD
32. melanie ivanoff
@25 My youngest brother had a cabbage patch boy baby doll when he was a kid, which has since been passed to his son, now 5.

when we were kids, we had GI joes and Star wars guys fighting off the attacks of the giants (my Barbies). I feel like our play was more free-for-all than a alot of kids do these days? the only thing i remember being annoyed at when we played was that my brothers got to be Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker and i had to be the girl character. Though Leia does get to shoot stuff in Jedi. :)
Melanie S
33. starryharlequin
Gerry Quinn @31: There is a difference in the advanced math, yes, but the cutoff math ability is nowhere near high enough to account for the difference. (There is a slideshow somewhere, which someone else may be able to link you to, that demonstrates this: men and women are differ by only 0.15 standard deviations on math exams, although the women have a smaller variance; you'd have to assume that every single person with a math ability above a cutoff has gone into physics or mathematics to account for the difference, and that's clearly not what happens.)
And why would any unfounded societal biases apply more to physics than chemistry? Okay, I can think of possibilities: maybe physicists are especially unfriendly to women
Not necessarily unfriendly, but there's a threshhold effect: while women are rare enough to be only one or two members per department, it's hard to get more women in. Once you do the numbers expand rapidly. I also suspect that the reputation of physics as abstract and mathematical doesn't help the gender balance, either.
JimD
34. Gerry__Quinn
But it's not about passing math exams - it's about needing a very high level of mathematical ability. A physicist who's on the cut-off is going to have problems. The variance might be more important than the average here.

As for the reputation of physics as abstract and mathematical: compared to chemistry, it is!
Melanie S
35. starryharlequin
Sorry, I misspoke--by "math exams" I meant things such as math IQ tests, not, like, an in-class algebra test! The math IQ cutoff required for the ratio seen in physics (1 woman to 4 men, taking the standard deviation difference to be 0.15 and the variance ratio to be 1.2) is 135, which from my experience would actually be more like the midpoint of the math IQ distribution in physics, not the low end. And of course that ignores the other aspects necessary for a career in science, such as creativity and public speaking skills.

Certain aspects of physics--and definitely the undergraduate classes--are more abstract and mathematical than chemistry, but there's a range of hands-on and intuitive subjects and tasks in both.
Cathy Mullican
36. nolly
YellowIbis is a another source of good pro-STEM shirts. This one is a good response to the JC Penney shirt and similar.
Ashley Fox
37. A Fox
Oh I remember thinking about this when I discovered I was pregant, with a boy. I had every intention of not buying into gender stereotyping and steaming of ideas and socialy acceptable behaviour trends. I would protect him as best (impossible to avoid all that pink and blue packaging therefore browns and forest shades became the in vogue/in utero demand for gifts) I could, and let his own interests develop naturally.

He defied me.

He is nearing four and a Boy BOY. He will not sit down and concentrate on a project, such as art for long...if at all. But give him something active and messy, such as cooking and he's as happy as larry. He loves trains, dinosaurs, dragons, trucks, DIGGERS, rokets etc oh and a strange obsession wit Rubbish trucks, have to recycle...

He has a friend, girl, who loves Princesses, cute things, babies, will sit and colour within lines...even traced over a letter I drew for her at a very early age.

The cultural deliniations are not just fabricated to keep women in their place ( though assuredly the zeal and extremes to which these differences have been reinforced is solely down to a capitalist patriarchal society) there are inherent (broadly speaking, not a strict catorgorization) differences between the genders.

My friend and I (the girls mother) still share our views on not gender stereotyping our children. Her girl loves Slipknot. My son after watching Tangled wasnt very fussed my the bandits or male roles but rather "when Im a bit older Im gong to have a baby...awww" and reasured me that "dont worry, of course she'll save him". while she's colouring in the pub, my son will borrow her pram and baby and take it for a stroll, she can concentrate on inticate hand/eye co-ordination, he knew his numbers and shapes from a very early age, they will both wrestle like demons given half the chance, then my son will start the apologies with kisses, they both know how to use an I Phone, I PAd and Mac. They also take it in turns to have meltdowns...competitively we suspect.

When their naturally occuring differnces are not reinforced or labeled 'right' and 'wrong' within a gender specific frame they work beautifully in tandem.

(NB curiously its worth noting that I am a single mother, so my Son has had a greater female influence that male. Most of our family is also female.)
JimD
38. gwailouh
Don't feel too bad about the IAT. I really think that the order of subjects presented makes a big difference. If the test had placed female and science together first then you might have been more neutral or even had moderate associations with female and science. I think that you get some type of quick hand-eye/muscle memory thing going on the first association and then you have to unlearn it. For example, I did the race one and it said that I have a moderate association of white with good (which is what the testers assume most Americans to do). During that test, white was paired with good first. Then I did the weight test and it showed that I have a moderate preference for fat people (which goes against what the testers assume most Americans prefer). During that test, fat was paired with good first. Then I did the career test and it showed that I have a moderate association of male with career. During that test, male was paired with career first. I seriously think that the order that they pair the categories makes a huge difference in your "preference" or "association." At least, it appears to for me.
JimD
39. Glowworm
I took three of the IAT's (the sexual orientation, Native Americans, and gender and science ones) and scored against the grain every time. I am a woman who loves art and music, but also loves math and science and served in the US Navy as a nuclear mechanic. I have a son who participates in dance and theater and a daughter who loves "creepy-crawlies" and is studying entomology. For every negative stereotype that discourages girls from getting involved in science, there is a negative that discourages boys from dancing. And it's all bullshit! People are people. Some people are good at math, some are good at art, and so on. Some kids like to get dirty and climb trees, and some like to have teddy-bear tea parties. Among my own children, gender is no predictor of who will like what activities.
JimD
40. Glowworm
@Helen- my now-8YO son had a baby doll when he was a toddler, and recieved a tea set for Christmas last year.
JimD
41. Wei (the archer)
That test is very interesting, I'll drop by the website to check it out, I'm curious as to what my result will be. This subject has been discussed a lot and the same conclusion remains: girls and boys should not be labeled pink and blue respectively. I feel that's an insult to thinking minds. I didn't grow up with many toys, per se, but I did various outdoor activities with the kids from my neighborhood. We climbed mountains (mounds and hills actually), jumped on rocks over rivers and puddles, and several times we served huge mud pies to the kids from the other street. It was amazing, and not looking back, I noticed our group of rowdy kids had few girls. I was among those. Whenever I played with the other prim and delicate girls (on my mother's coaxing), somehow I always ended up being a prince or a murderous thief.

My point is, children have gender roles defined them since early on, even with the activities they choose to spend their times with. Toys are designed with labels, pink and blue, and anyone with sense will know which is whose. I don't operate like that. I treat my niece and nephew equally.

As for the sciences being a men role, I have to say it's a daunting truth. For more logical careers, men excel, and are seen in greater numbers than women. Most women lean toward liberal arts career. I remember two years ago, after high school graduation, I was off to university as undecided major. One semester later, I called my parents to tell them about my major: architecture. They were furious and worried about my choice. My mother kept saying it was no career for a woman, that I should be doing finance or accounting! Not a chance. My choices, since childhood, have always been: medicine and engineering. But I'm super happy I found architecture.

I highly respect a lot of scientists (male at that), but I feel female scientists are exponentially growing larger in numbers :)

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