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.