Monday, August 23, 2010

Gender discrimination starts early

Last week, I took one of my sons to the doctor. Fortunately, this office has a lot of nice, fun things to play with while you are waiting. Princess ignored the doll house, the books, and the coloring books. When she spied the blocks, she picked up a couple of them and began to run around the room.

I was absently watching her play when a little boy came up to me. He was about four years old. Pointing at Princess, he said, "She needs to give me those."

I looked at my toddler daughter, happily running around with two blocks in one hand and one in the other. For once, she wasn't tearing off down the hall hoping that I would chase her. She wasn't taking toys away from this child or anyone else. She was behaving as well as should be expected for her age.

So I looked down at him with a slightly bemused expression and said, "No, she doesn't."

His mom piped up. "[Child], you need to share the toys with the little girl. Why don't you bring her something else to play with?"

I found my mouth saying, "Oh, yeah, that would be great," while my mind was thinking, "This isn't right."

The little boy ran over with a doll. A small plastic doll in a pink dress. He thrust it at Princess.

"Here!" he said.

She ignored him. Is it wrong to admit that I smiled inside when she ran the other way, banging the blocks together with a happy grin?

I found myself explaining Princess' behavior to the little boy, who seemed puzzled and angry. "She doesn't like dolls yet. She likes blocks and cars." I should have added, "just like you." Instead, I found myself saying, "She has brothers ..."

How sad is that? Why did I feel the need to explain away her behavior? She's a girl. She likes trucks and blocks. So what?

At the age of four, this little boy has already learned that it is okay to take blocks and cars -- what he sees as "boy toys" -- away from the girls. He has learned that girls play with dolls and, apparently, only dolls. And I, without stopping to think about it, contributed to his biases.

Fortunately, my daughter did not.

Photo credit: Holger Zscheyge, via flickr // CC BY 2.0


CricketB said...

Offering a child another toy so she'll give up the good one is considered acceptable and even taught in parenting classes as a way to take something without causing a tantrum. It rarely works. But, yeah, the kid assuming a doll would be better might be statistically significant.

The only thing I'd have hoped to say differently was leave out the "yet". Simple and something the other kid might have seen for himself, if he weren't 4 and determined to get the blocks. Not wanting the doll is normal and not worth any sort of qualifying.

On the other hand, as far as child development goes, "yet" is probably accurate.

One of my engineering classmates planned to forbid her daughter from any pink-collar skill. That raised my hackles. Mind you, she also listed cooking on her resume, since it involved planning and following procedures.

jublke said...

CricketB: I think what surprised me was that I found myself going along with social norms and feeling okay about that and yet feeling so angry at the same time. I had to really sit back and think about what I had said, why I had said it, and why it bothered me. The incident really made me reflect on gender discrimination and some of the ideas I touched on in Women and Engineering: The Great Debate Part 1 and Part 2. I foresee my daughter with a future in engineering. She seems to be blessed with both patience and persistence, which should serve her well.

Princess Jibi said...

lol.. when I was small all I wanted were cars and guns and trucks. I had like 4 boy cousins that I grew up with. And i talked like a boy as well and sat like a boy. And most of my friends where boy throughout school. But I realise now it helped a lot. I didnt have any boyfriends cuz I thought of every guy as a brother. But I turned out ok lol.

Jen said...

Hi Jules,

We met at scienceonline last year & I just was dropping by your blog via Bora's attendee interviews. I'm lucky in that my parents handed my brother & me each the same stuff, be it a sewing machine, pot, wrench or alarm clock to tear apart. What we liked, we were encouraged to follow up on, what we didn't at least had exposed us to another aspect of the world. I volunteered to give 'logic lessons' to my daughter's 3rd grade class at the request of the teacher. Before I went in, as an opening exercise, the teacher had the kids draw 'a scientist' (only instructions). The totally cool thing was that regardless of what the teacher expected, there was no bias towards one gender or the other, one race, one style of dress.

I think as parents we are hypersensitized to 'areas where we could improve'. THe fact that princess was absolutely comfortable and confident in her choice of blocks over dolls speaks volumes more about what you teaching her than your reply to someone else's child does. It is appropriate to try & be self aware of what messages you are subconsiously sending your kids, but it is also appropriate to take into account potential 'audience assumptions' when addressing an unknown audience.

In my experience (undergrad in electrical engineering when all professors and 80% of the students were nale) and molecular genetics (when very few professors were women & committiees still said things like 'she didn't even wear a dress, she couldn't have been taking her qualifiers seriously enough' honest & I am not THAT old) people's reaction to you as a woman is largely based on how you present yourself as a person. I'm sure everyone has seen how being confidence affects peoples' reaction to you, in all areas of life & regardless of gender, etc.