Monday, October 14, 2013

More Lego Shenannigans

For Lego, the Friends line was a good thing. They made a nice chunk of change off of that line. I was quite annoyed by their explicit genderization of their products. They're going even further into the gendered realm by sending a special Lego Friends e-newsletter out - but only to girls. How do they know they're sending them to girls only? Gender is a required piece of information when signing up for their newsletter. Lego, I am unimpressed.

Read more about one family's take on the gender-specific newsletters here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

New Lego Scientist Minifig

I've been considering this post for awhile. First off, kudos to Lego for making a female scientist minifig:

Secondly, minus some kudos for making her pink and purple and curvy. On the one hand, it's annoying that in the US you can't be both feminine and a scientist, so this figure is a problem to many. In Europe, however, you can be both feminine and a scientist, so adding feminine features like a purple shirt and curves doesn't cause as much of a sense of cognitive dissonance and the feeling that this figure is just plain wrong to the creators in Denmark. I really do not know how to feel in this instance. It seems to be a catch-22 - we try to tell girls that they can be feminine and do science, but in practice they get a lot more backlash than non-feminine (t-shirts and jeans) girls do. Lego makes a female scientist in a bid to be a bit more progressive and get more female figures into their lineup, and they get yelled at for giving her makeup. I suppose if there were a few female STEM figures, some with feminine attributes and some without, they would (should?) be lauded for their positive and varied portrayal of women in the same way they portray many different types of men. For a much more in-depth discussion of minifigs, please see this Scientific American post.

I suppose the takeaway here is that there are many types of women who make up roughly half of the population. Rather than offering a wide variety of female minifigs, as they do with the men, Lego either gets backlash for making her feminine, or if they had made her decidedly unfeminine or frumpy, they would get backlash for that too. Maybe Lego should make more female minifigs in enough variations that they are representative of the female population instead of picking and choosing among stereotypes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Teaching Gender Stereotypes

I love it when little kids are able to recognize that something is not quite right when it comes to imposing gender on things that really shouldn't be gender-specific. Here's another little girl who has the right idea and isn't afraid to speak up about it. As seen on Sociological Images (specific article), this 8-year-old girl was supposed to take fifteen activities and separate them by activities that boys do, ones that girls do, and ones that both boys and girls do. She put three in the boys' column, two in the girls' column, and all the rest in the "both" column, earning a comment from her teacher saying she did the assignment incorrectly:

I am currently involved in some curriculum development and I have been a teacher before. I try my hardest to stay away from things like this assignment. The purpose of this assignment is to categorize things, but the content used requires value judgements and reinforces stereotypes rather than simply allowing students to categorize things. It seems as though the teacher used check marks to note what was wrong - she put a check in all of the empty boxes as well as by Legos in the column for "both". Legos are for boys only? Well, now we see why they felt the need to make Lego Friends!

Why not use a project like "Dogs vs. Cats", with things like water and food bowls as what they both use and scratching posts and bones as category specific? That is likely to be familiar to all students, but maybe not, so it may not be the best choice. How about things you do at home versus things you do at school? Eating and playing games should be in both, while sleep and have math class are probably going to be category specific. There are other examples of categorizing that are familiar to students and not reinforcing stereotypes, so why choose an assignment that teaches young kids what they can and cannot do?

Teachers are very important people, especially in the lives of young, impressionable children. Girls especially can be affected by what their teachers think of them, and sadly, there's a major bias against girls in science and math. You probably hold this bias too; head over to the Implicit Bias site from Harvard, click on "Demonstration", and take the Gender-Science Implicit Association Test. I'll wait. You probably have at least a slight bias against women in science. Many women in science and engineering have this bias too. In one recent study (NY Times article), a resume was given to physics, biology, and chemistry professors, male and female, at six major research universities and they were asked whether they would mentor the student or give them a job, and to rate their competence and give them a general starting salary. The resumes were identical except that half were from "John" and half were from "Jennifer". Jennifer had an expected starting salary of $26,500 and was rated 3.3 on a scale of 7 on average. John could expect $30,300, was considered to be a 4 out of 7, and the professors were more likely to hire him. Gender, age, and other factors of the professors didn't matter, John was considered better than Jennifer even though the rest of the resume was the exact same1. These are the professors teaching, advising, and mentoring future scientists, and they favor the male. Teachers tend to believe that their white male students are doing better in math than they truly are, but more problematic, they tend to believe that their white female students are worse at math than their scores show, according to a study (Forbes article) in Gender & Society2. This contributes to girls losing ground to boys in mathematics at every step of their educational path3. Additionally, if girls in elementary school have a female teacher who has math anxiety, it can have a negative effect on their math scores4. Basically, teachers are much more important and influential on young minds than I could have ever imagined, and overt displays of stereotype reinforcement like this could potentially be very detrimental on students' identities and beliefs of what they can and cannot do based on their gender.

1 Moss-Racusin, C. A., et al. (2012). "Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
2 Riegle-Crumb, C. and M. Humphries (2012). "Exploring Bias in Math Teachers’ Perceptions of Students’ Ability by Gender and Race/Ethnicity." Gender & Society 26(2): 290-322.
3 Robinson, J. P., et al. (2011). The Effects of Teachers' Gender-Stereotypical Expectations on the Development of the Math Gender Gap, Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness: 11.
4 Beilock, S. L. (2010). "Female teachers' math anxiety affects girls' math achievement." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107(5): 1860.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reinforcing Gender Norms - Male is "Normal"

Toys, teachers, and of course media like books, television, and movies, are constantly reinforcing the gender gap. "Wait, wait, wait," you think, "toys and media, sure, but teachers?" Why am I picking on teachers? I have my reasons. I'll share those reasons in my next post, but first, here's a heartwarming story from a six year old girl trying to buck those gosh darn gender inequalities seen even in games that are supposed to be "fun for the whole family!"

The article is about a six-year-old girl who writes to Hasbro about the horrible gender inequality seen in their timeless classic, "Guess Who?" Here's her full letter:
Dear Hasbro,

My name is R______. I am six years old. I think it's not fair to only have 5 girls in Guess Who and 19 boys. It is not only boys who are important, girls are important too. If grown ups get into thinking that girls are not important they won't give little girls much care.

Also if girls want to be a girl in Guess Who they'll always lose against a boy, and it will be harder for them to win. I am cross about that and if you don't fix it soon, my mum could throw Guess Who out.

My mum typed this message but I told her what to say.
So astute! She, as a six year old, sums up what a lot of research says, research that not everyone believes. Hasbro also didn't seem to get what she was saying in their response. Here's an excerpt:
The game is not weighted in favour of any particular character, male or female. Another aspect of the game is to draw attention away from using gender or ethnicity as the focal point, and to concentrate on those things that we all have in common, rather than focus on our differences.
As in her letter, it is in fact weighted in favor of some characteristics: if your first question is "Is it a male?" and the answer is no, you're down to 5 possible choices rather than 19 for a yes. Also, if gender were not a factor, make it equal (like in real life!) and that way gender is truly not a possible focal point. Her mother responds in an excellent manner as well, alluding to the common idea that male is the normal, while female is the "other":
Why is female gender regarded as a "characteristic", while male gender is not?
All in all, an excellent question asked by an excellent child, and a not-so excellent response by a company who would probably be doing itself a favor by updating the game to include the same number of women as men. They could also update it by adding race as an equally balanced factor, but that's where things can really get tricky. I applaud this little girl for writing to Hasbro, and just wish they'd taken her question and the implications she mentions as seriously as they should have.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sales Pitches for Lego

After writing the first post about Legos, I got to thinking: I can complain about what I think they're doing wrong, but what would I like to see done? What would doing it "right" look like? Does it matter that the toys aren't really Legos in the sense of being mostly built from the same common blocks, since they are in fact selling better than expected? Would a set that I consider to be great due to its lack of exclusivity and themes that align with goals and ideals more commonly held by girls sell well, as in, would it be as attractive to the parents who are spending the money as well as the girls and boys who would play with it? After I started thinking about it, I came up with a few ideas.

Belville Winter Wonder Palace
Lego, girls are not necessarily adverse to building. You seem to think so, with the Belville and Friends sets having few parts to put together and therefore few, if any, ways to play with them that aren't the picture on the front of the box. You have an amazing collection of Landmarks and Architecture; why don't you have Disney castles? Sure it's the obvious thing, but Disney collectors and girls alike will jump at these sets, and so will some boys. You have the Duplo Cinderella Castle, why not an Architect version for adults? If you add an amazing dragon, maybe using some of the moving parts you're so good at to make it roar and "breathe fire", a Prince on his noble steed, fairies to save the day, a MiniFig with a changing dress color, and maybe some additional sets for special scenes like the cabin in the woods, the friends in the forest, or the finger-pricking spinning wheel, you've got a real collection with aspects that will appeal to many demographics, boys and girls, adults and kids. Even if the boys aren't buying it strictly for the Disney factor, they might need another castle to battle against, or a fire-breathing dragon to menace their pirates.

Looking at your other products, why Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean but not Up? That house, especially if they did translucent balloons, would be something amazing, and would appeal to girls too. The Lego Games are a really interesting concept, games whose Lego boards change during play. I'd love to see some broader themes, like an equestrian set where you change the paths and jump heights, or take Heroica and add some themes like an army led by a Queen. Changing the Minotaurus game to have female heroines as an option rather than two males on the cover, or even having a similar game where the goal is to find the treasure or rescue someone (in an Egyptian tomb? on a pirate map?) rather than to avoid the Minotaur would make them more appealing. What I'd love to see would be a Mouse Trap style game using Technic-style moving pieces. I'd also love to buy different things that move under the Technic banner, like useful robots. Really, just changing the marketing and presentation of many of the toys so they were less male-centric would help broaden the appeal as well. So many possibilities!

Disney Parks - Castles Collection

Lego Cuusoo is a website for people to build prototypes of sets they'd like to see. Once a set has 10,000 supporters, Lego will review it and see if it would be worthwhile for them to implement it. Right now, there's a set of the three main Disney castles that is looking for supporters, among other really cool possible prototypes (Curiosity the Mars rover got its 10,000 supporters already). Support your favorite projects if you'd like to see some new sets, or better yet, design your own and try to drum up enough support. When I can find the time, I plan to submit some of these ideas.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Never Enough Time

For my History and Philosophy of Engineering Education class, we read a lot. It's also the last class of the week, and the one that is likely to be skimmed and not as deeply prepared for as the others. This is actually a really sad state of affairs; this is the most consistently interesting and insightful class this semester, where deep thoughts are not only encouraged but required. By the time I have to reflect on the reading for the week, I'm usually up late Wednesday night or trying to synthesize a reasonable response before my 10:30 AM class. Once or twice I've even been frantically trying to skim the last paper or two as class is starting in order to be able to talk about all of them. I hate that.

Available at Tower Books
We've been reading Philosophy of Education by Nel Noddings. If you're interested in philosophy and education this is a great introductory book. Every week I tell myself I will sit down either on the couch with a mug of tea or in the tub with a glass of wine and really enjoy the book. I want to read it slowly to savor the ideas, roll them around in my mind so I can fit them in with what I already know and believe, question my own understanding and beliefs, modify some, reject others, and build more of my personal philosophy of what education is, was, could be, and should be. I want to understand how the idea of what education means philosophically, politically, and socially has changed throughout the years, where the major themes originated, and what radical notions have been thrown out the window. I want to luxuriate in the glorious writing, my first real introduction to philosophy, something I'm learning that I love, rather than skimming the chapter in the hours before it's due. This is week four of making that promise.

I was skimming back through the book, trying to find what it was that Dewey said exactly about groups for a post I'm working on, when my eye caught a line that I'm shocked I hadn't picked up on before. In my essays for entrance to Purdue, to be eligible for certain types of aid I had to write a Teaching Statement. In that Statement, I wrote:

"The instructor’s job is to guide learning, not to lecture. If a student retains nothing, there has been no learning, so the teacher has not taught effectively"

John Dewey wrote similar things, with the idea that if learning has not happened, neither has teaching. Apparently, the teaching and learning I've been doing all my life has led me to a mostly Deweyan way of thinking about education. To me, you don't need to be a teacher to teach, and even if you're a teacher, you may not be teaching. This tends to be a learner-centered idea, the idea that it doesn't matter what the teacher is doing, what matters is what the student is gaining. I still wrestle with that idea, whether or not it's a personal truth. Sometimes, no matter your best try, no matter what teaching methods you use, you just cannot get through to your students, either because they aren't ready to hear what you have to say or they have no intrinsic motivation to learn what you're trying to teach. I think most teachers who are involved in those common "First Year Enrichment" seminar-type classes that introduce students to what they should be doing in college can agree. Many students don't realize how important a lot of the information they're getting is in those classes, for many who were like me, not because they're bad students, but because they were good students in high school and don't yet realize the leap from high school level work to college level work is much, much greater than they thought. Are those professors not teaching? Well, they're trying their best, but as a freshmen who was in the top 10% of her high school class without doing much work, I couldn't see the value in what they were presenting. That doesn't mean they weren't using the best methods they knew to try to transfer information - so were they teaching?

Going back to graduate school, especially in this History and Philosophy class, I'm being introduced to so many interesting ways of thinking and doing and introspective looks at engineering, things that fit in well with my life and personal goals and ideas. In the first few weeks of this class, we were introduced to the idea that engineers are trained to think and do in certain ways and see their reality from an engineering perspective. For myself and many engineers I know, that means seeing the world as problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design, and everything has possibilities1. For introspective engineers like me, I noticed the differences and was interested in how I changed. Everyone in my group in that class is at a similar point cognitively; that's why we're pursuing Doctor of Philosophy degrees in this area. We all agree that having this information, understanding how engineers act and the idea of engineering epistemology (way of knowing/thinking) and ontology (way of perceiving reality and being), are useful and important to engineers, however as undergraduate students and for some of us, even at the Master's level, we may not have been open to these ideas. We'd love to have engineering students, maybe as a part of their final capstone project, be introduced to these ideas, but recognize that not everyone would be receptive or even cognitively capable of thinking and understanding in these ways. We'd like to teach these ideas, but again, would it be teaching if no one learns or grows as a result?

My definition of teaching, that it is one part of the learning equation and without learning, there is no teaching, is rooted in my engineering mindset. I like the idea of outcomes-based education and applying engineering problem solving methods to teaching. What methods work best to increase learning for students? To know what your students have learned, you need to study the outcomes. I understand that the Outcomes-Based Education movement in 1990s has been highly criticized and rejected by many, and that outcomes-based instruction on a national level generally leads to standardized testing, however I still believe that if you are not measuring the effect you are having on students, you cannot be sure they are learning. As an engineer, it is not the effort you put in to the design or solution, the bottom line is whether the product meets specifications. Therefore, as a teacher, it does not matter how much time you spent preparing for class, how many hours you spend grading or lecturing, but whether the students have met the desired learning goals or not.

As an instructor, I believed my success or failure resided with how well my students performed in the various assessments I set for them. I believe that the assessment should fit the learning outcomes and that the assessment portion of outcomes-based learning is the most difficult to implement. As a personal philosophy, and for college-level educators, I believe that designing assessments to measure outcomes well to gauge teaching effectiveness should be required. At a national or state level, the percentage of students who manage to pass standardized tests is not an effective gauge of teaching. I believe we do need to be measuring the learning that happens. Fourth graders learn so much more than reading and math, or at least, they should; they should have learned how to socialize with their peers, how to work together, how to be polite in class, how to get their homework done, how to play at recess, how to be creative in art classes, how to tell a basic historical story, how to solve basic problems, simple spelling and writing, in many schools, how to use a computer, and a whole host of other things that are not on standardized tests. Just because a student in fourth grade tests at a second grade level does not mean they did not learn, it may mean that they came in at a first grade level, or that the majority of the learning they did was in the second language they're now taking classes in.

To sum up, I suppose I do agree with Dewey. I also very much enjoy thinking about things from a philosophical perspective and would like to learn more in this area. It's interesting to see how my thoughts and ideas change as I continue my education.

1 As an aside, while writing that sentence, I had a small epiphany about my life - I am the first college graduate and to be perfectly honest have had some really amazing opportunities and thus far in my life, I've been really, really successful. More successful than I'd thought I could be (this sometimes leads to Impostor Syndrome), and I think that my engineering mindset, "...everything has possibilities" is a major part of how I've gotten where I am. I'm always taking the interesting opportunity, working to better myself and/or my situation where I can, and in the overall scheme of things, not having a defeatist attitude because everything can be viewed as "...problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design..." This reinforces my belief that engineering thinking, or at least some level of the engineering mindset of solving problems and optimizing what you've got should be taught to everyone, and taught early. For some time, my political views swung toward the 'bad' kind of libertarian. I came from a less-than-perfect situation and made something of it, why can't everyone? I've long since recognized that personal responsibility isn't the problem (or the solution), but many engineers I know are conservative/libertarian/Randian in political beliefs and I think I now have a better understanding of why, articulated in a way that makes sense to me. The engineering mindset does predispose one to thinking that everyone should be able to think in optimizations and solve their problems. Maybe all engineering programs should have an ethics/personal responsibility/sociology(?)/psychology(?)/I-have-no-idea-what-department class in understanding other mindsets and social factors, i.e., Why Everyone Else Isn't an Engineer, Doesn't Think Like You, and That Doesn't Mean You're Better Than They Are Class. It would be interesting to see where that would fit into a curriculum in the sense of when students are ready for it - end of second/beginning of third year when everything is difficult but they're still likely to remain an engineer? Final course, or seminar as part of a capstone, when they've almost got the degree and likely have been indoctrinated into engineering as a way of thinking and being? Not immediately, when they probably don't have the engineering sense of self (and often sense of superiority) yet. I think that may be full post for another day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gendered Engineering Toys Part II: Goldie Blox

Last time, I introduced the idea of gendered engineering toys and feminization of engineering toys. Legos are great toys; they introduce kids to the ideas of design and building, and the more advanced toys even have motors and sensors and the ability to program so you really are building your own robots and other devices. Legos, along with other building toys, are typically considered boy's toys today. This helps to contribute to the idea that designing, building, and constructing things using your imagination are all in the realm of "things boys do" rather than "things people do" or even better for girls, "things I can do."

Enter Goldie Blox. This is a new Kickstarter campaign designed by a Standford engineer to try to fill the gap for engineering-related media to help girls realize not only that some girls are and can be engineers, but maybe even they can be engineers too. I think this is a great area that really needs to be developed. Fostering the idea that engineering and related things like science and math are possible for them to do or better yet, interesting and fun, will help more students to be open to the idea that they can and even should take the advanced classes in science and math that many avoid in high school. Taking these classes allows students to be more academically prepared for a wider range of college majors, including engineering.

A lot of research went into this toy. There's a book plus a set of building supplies based on household items that, according to the designer, should be familiar to girls. The book explains why Goldie, the main character, is building what she is building and how she goes about it, allowing the reader to play along and make the same things that Goldie is making. The books are person-oriented, all of the things she is making are to help her friends, and girls tend to be more person-oriented1. Boys who are engineers are typically thing-oriented (most interested in the workings of the objects they are dealing with), while girls tend to rate highly on both person- and thing-orientation, wanting to help people by working with other engineers to create interesting things engineers get to design and build2. They also tend to have more communal goals, wanting to build interpersonal relationships as part of a successful or enjoyable career while helping people3. These books use these ideas to craft story that Goldie found a problem that can be solved using engineering to help her friends.

However. The common objects are sewing implements - spools and ribbon. Not all girls are interested in sewing or have had any experience with spools of thread and ribbons. These items are considered feminine things, and while boys might follow media with an interesting protagonist, especially because they'd get to also build things that work, in our culture there is a definite level of derision towards things that are considered strictly feminine. The ribbon and spools of thread, especially the fact that the ribbon is pink, will turn boys off. Yes, this product is made for girls, but the idea that engineering can be for everyone, rather than the idea that girly things can also be engineering, is more important. Back to that comic from last time:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

The creator says that she went beyond the "make it pink" idea. The basic concept is a great product; the underlying research and design appeals to a broad audience (including person-oriented boys!), however the product itself suffers from a great deal of "make it pink." The main problem is that in the US today, engineering is perceived as almost exclusively for boys. There is a difference between feminizing engineering and removing the stigma that it is masculine or unfeminine. "Making it pink" is trying to feminize something that really should not be gendered. Rather than trying to feminize the kinds of things that engineers do, we should be emphasizing the factors that appeal to a broader audience, such as interdisciplinary collaboration (work with people to solve problems) and aspects of helping and care (create prostheses or everyday items that improve peoples' lives) while showing diverse types of engineers like Goldie Blox and others.

There is an argument for making a feminine version of toys like this. Some little girls will go crazy for anything pink, so a pink product will appeal greatly to them. They'll get the engineering thinking and building practice, but are more likely to reach for this toy due to its girl appeal. Some parents or other gift-givers will only buy "girl" things for girls, and so the pink ribbon around spools of thread is going to appeal to them. For general school success, a feminized role model does seem to work for girls, however a stereotypically feminine role model succeeding at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) actually made middle school girls less interested in math in studies4. Nonexclusive toys would broaden the idea of who can do engineering, math, science, and technology, while feminizing this area may have negative consequences.

Dora the Explorer on Nick Jr.
I wish that it were portrayed more like Dora the Explorer originally was - sure it's a girl as the main character, but she's doing great things with her friends that both boys and girls can enjoy, while implicitly giving the idea that girls can do this kind of thing too because she is a girl and she's doing it. Protagonists in all media are typically male, and not just male, white too. As a Hispanic female, Dora reached out to a large audience and contributed to the idea that Hispanic girls can be strong, independent explorers. This idea is important for all, not just the Hispanic girls who see the "people like me" connection, but for everyone. Stereotypes are developed by media children consume as well as socialization they have. Seeing strong women and minority characters helps children develop the idea that women and minorities can be strong, independent equals and even superiors. In a world where the majority of the media focuses on white males, both white and male are the defaults, the ones who can attain power, whether or not we overtly recognize and agree with these ideas.

IMDb Listing
In a similar vein is the book, now movie, The Hunger Games. If you've read it, you'll know that the protagonist's gender isn't revealed until you're already hooked into the story, and for some that revelation is an unexpected shock. Again, it didn't start out by jumping up and down and shouting, "Here's something for GIRLS! Girl Power! We can do what boys do too!" Rather, it is a good product for consumption by both boys and girls and has the power to implicitly change the stereotypes and ideas that are commonly held. The Hunger Games challenged a lot of these cultural stereotypes: first, that the female main character could do what she did. Secondly, and more importantly, the idea that girls will read boys' stories but boys will not read girls' stories, still taught to elementary school teachers. Thirdly, the idea, still taught to budding screenwriters, that making money in Hollywood requires male-centric plots with male main characters, mostly male secondary characters, and females can be there as love interests or as scenery. How much media have you consumed recently that passes the Bechdel test? Women are 50% of the population, why is it that women's stories are almost always considered inferior for anything but sub-genres?

Toys and media that give the idea that engineering can be "for me" for women and underrepresented minorities is important. There isn't much of that so far. This is a great step in the right direction, but in my opinion goes too far and rather than promoting inclusive ideas about engineering, excludes groups who are not white females, and could, if it became popular enough, even serve to feminize, rather than broaden, the definition of engineering. Feminizing engineering would actually do more harm than good by turning boys off from engineering. Our culture is full of stereotypes and ideas about who can or should have careers like engineering. We need to break down these stereotypes and broaden the definition, not create more walls and stereotypes.

1 Graziano, W. G., et al. (2012). "Orientations and motivations: Are you a “people person,” a “thing person,” or both?" Motivation and Emotion: 1-13.
2 Woodcock, A., et al. (2012). "Person and Thing Orientations: Psychological Correlates and Predictive Utility." Social Psychological and Personality Science.
3 Diekman, A. B., et al. (2010). "Seeking congruity between goals and roles a new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers." Psychological Science 21(8): 1051-1057.
4 Betz, D. E. and D. Sekaquaptewa (2012). "My fair physicist? Feminine math and science role models demotivate young girls." Social Psychological and Personality Science.