Women in STEM: The Popular Misconceptions and Scapegoats

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Sat, May 30 - 4:11 pm EDT | 3 years ago by
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The gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math fields has seen no shortage of coverage – through media reporting and academic studies alike – in recent years. It has been reported that an estimated 14.5% of female students express an interest in a STEM field – particularly in biology, chemistry, and various sciences – in contrast to an estimated 39.6% of male students. Despite reports that women earn an estimated 33% more working in STEM fields, they make up only 24% of the workforce. Theories on this disparity range from speculation about biased hiring practices to blaming Barbie dolls. If only there were a Science Barbie, maybe we wouldn’t have this problem…

In a recent post on Huffpost Dr. Imogen Coe, Dean of Faculty of Science at Ryerson University, addressed the topic of women in STEM fields, blaming the lack of interest on everything from parental attention to Matt Taylor’s choice in wardrobe. Coe also focused largely on marketing and gender stereotyping in toys as a contributor. “Parents, especially fathers, need to recognize and boycott gendered toys and books and spend equal time with all our children on STEM-related toys and activities.”

The claim that toys are marketed in a gender specific fashion – and the accompanying claim that such marketing practices are impacting the number of women expressing an interest in STEM fields – has been widely discussed, with a new article addressing the issue popping up every week. The most frequently referenced company when it comes to gender stereotyping toys is Toys “R” Us.

One post reads “Many parents, psychologists, and sociologists believe the increase in gender-specific toy marketing in catalogs, advertisements, online retail, or in store, limits children’s choices about the type of toys they can play with and reinforces traditional gender stereotypes. This in turn affects what they choose to study in later education and the roles they play as adults.”

As much as I love taking people’s words for things – particularly when their points are so eloquently punctuated by a single image – I decided to investigate the claims surrounding gender stereotyping by Toys “R” Us on my own. I scoured the company’s website, Facebook page, and three separate stores, and I didn’t find the patriarchal oppression I was expecting.

On the Store Website:

Toys R Us - STEM Toys

Toys R Us - Boy-Girl Toys

Mother of god! Would you just look at all those poor girls being kept away from STEM fields – all that science and biology and exploring and discovering they aren’t doing. Disgraceful.

On the Store Facebook Page:

Toys R Us Facebook Page

Toys R Us Facebook Toys

Be still my heart – is that a girl Buzz Lightyear? Is that boy gardening? And children of both genders are allowed to play sports and music together? Hold the phone, this must surely all be for show. I have no doubt I will be walking into a den of misogyny once I actually approach a physical store.

In-Store Shopping:

Toys R Us - Kitchen Toys

Toys R Us - In-store toys

Boys playing kitchen and making loom bracelets… girls building neat blue robot things and catching bugs. And wait, are those two children playing HOCKEY together? My goodness, Toys “R” Us. I don’t believe you are gender stereotyping correctly at all.

In addition to the versatile children used for the box images, I located roughly eight aisles that could be considered geared towards certain genders – but not for the reason you may think. The “girls” aisles were, in reality, aisles that were designated for Hasbro, Disney Princesses, Monster High, and Barbie. Similarly licensed and visually similar products were all together. The baby doll aisle was right next to the kitchen sets – whose packaging for everything from elaborate gourmet set-ups to small additional appliances included images of boys and girls playing together. The “boys” aisles included similar organization – with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers (yes, even the girl ones) sharing an aisle, and Mario and Sonic sharing another – conveniently located near the electronics and gaming department.

The science aisle was halfway across the store from this one section, nestled between the Crayola and sports aisles.

Now that I feel I’ve adequately tackled the myth of the big bad toy store unfairly keeping girls away from the most lucrative careers that the job market has to offer, what’s next?

The NCES 2013 Digest of Education Statistics includes information on the gender breakdown for top majors from 1970-2012. Women received an estimated 85% of Health degrees, 82% of Public Administration (social work, public policy, etc) related degrees, 79% of Education degrees, and 77% of Psychology degrees. The numbers also show that an estimated 40-45% of the degrees in Math, Statistics, and Physical Sciences were conferred to women, along with 58% of the Biology degrees in 2012. We aren’t looking so much at a STEM gender gap, we’re looking at a TE gender gap – and that’s what this is really about.

If Americans are united in anything, it is their obsession with shifting education as a whole towards the teaching of very specific technical skills. Even President Obama found himself accidentally agreeing with Republicans when he recently expressed disappointment with the number of liberal arts degrees that were pursued in lieu of trades and skilled manufacturing. This mindset, shared by many in the age of machines, carelessly dismisses the value that subjects like English, philosophy, and, not least of all, education, bring to innovation and progress. These areas also happen to be predominantly occupied by women, with female students earning most of the Health, Education, and Social work degrees, and significantly more Art, Communications, and Language degrees than men.

The consensus that tech and engineering are the only ways to move forward says more about our social aptitude than any number of reality TV shows and Twitter battles ever could. The idea that a specific STEM degree is needed in order to contribute to the advancement of our society is possibly the gravest error in thinking we as a people have ever made. The second gravest is not truly appreciating those who have stepped into the roles of technological innovation, instead telling them that their worth is intrinsically tied to their gender.

Actually, there it is. I found the gender stereotyping. And it wasn’t with Toys “R” Us.

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing…”  ~ Steve Jobs

Liz Finnegan is a soulless ginger with no political leanings. Pun enthusiast. Self-proclaimed “World’s Okayest Person.” Retro gaming contributor for The Escapist.

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