I want to talk to you about sex. I can’t stop myself. And by sex, I actually mean gender. Sorry if this revelation disappoints, well, all of you. This year I couldn’t take it anymore. In an act of desperation, I turned to Santa Claus and asked him to enter into a secret pact. He would get my daughter toys related to science and I wouldn’t blow his cover. Santa understood that he exerts far greater influence than I do on such matters as what’s cool to play with and what’s not. He smartly balanced the science toys out with the highly coveted Rainbow Loom, but otherwise Christmas morning her stocking was full with a mineral testing kit, a funky planet game and wrapped in beautiful paper underneath awaited “Goldieblox,” a toy created for girls by a female engineer.
What pushed me to enter into a secret, science-pact with Santa? It all started before my kids were born. I always swore that if I had a girl, I was not going to dress her all in pink. Things were going to be different in my house, we were not going to have gender specific toys. This was much easier to manage when she was a toddler. We wore a lot of blue and played with blocks. But as time wore on it became harder and harder to ward off the well-meaning gift givers and pink clothing makers. Eventually American Girl dolls broke down our door.
I should warn you before you continue that this is an incredibly unscientific post about science. When I was pregnant, strangers and friends alike would constantly ask me if I knew whether the baby was a boy or a girl. I saw how important it was to people that they know about gender. Gender certainty makes people feel secure. It gives us a simple way of understanding and categorizing each other in an unknowable world. When gender remains enigmatic, people become anxious. My child had not even been born and already the gender wars had started.
When my daughter was about 18 months old we were waiting in an airport. She was wearing a bright blue sweater and overalls with a blue and red striped shirt. As she was toddling around, a woman nearby kept commenting how cute “he” was. After some back and forth I remarked with hesitancy, “Oh, she’s actually a girl.” The woman was mortified and apologized profusely. She was so embarrassed she couldn’t even look at me after that. I could care less about her error but was really struck by how upset this person got – mistaking a girl for a boy.
In addition to my daughter, I also have a son. When I take a look at their rooms I see that I have failed miserably on the gender front line. My son’s room is full of “boy” items like cars and trains and my daughter’s room looks like it belongs to a “girl.” I can’t really say what their personal tastes would have been if they had been able to choose toys for themselves. I feel like a gender-nervous society decided for them and they picked up on the relentless social cues at an early age – who would play with cars vs. dolls. I don’t feel like any of us had much of a say in the matter, although certainly as parents we could have been more aggressive about regulating incoming gifts (at the risk of insulting just about everyone). But one can feel defeated after too many battles with a Disney Princess. After awhile it becomes impossible not to give in.
I called on Santa for help this year because I’m trying to be better. I’m worried about the long-term impact of encouraging doll-playing vs. lego building. She loves math and science in school and yet more and more it feels like at home we’re not encouraging her along these lines. Parenting has become a relentless sociology lesson about how aggressively we as a society cling to traditional gender roles, even before a child is born.
My daughter and I were playing with her “Goldieblox” toy after the holidays. It comes with a cool belt drive, washers and wheels. As we designed different patterns she happily exclaimed, “I’m going to be an engineer!” I beamed and then she added, “Because that’s the kind of job where you can still have children.” She’s seven. And she’s already expressing anxiety about a work/life balance.
How can we do better for the next generation of girls to give them confidence in math and science? How can we make them feel like they can lead in fields like engineering without having to give something up? It’s 2014 and yet our girls are not going to escape the Disney Princess juggernaut. This year, I’m going to gather up my allies. I’m going to make more pacts with Santa and whoever else will listen. My resolution is to encourage all of our girls to be critical thinkers through performances that Pivot Arts creates and by being the best role model that I can be. That feels like a start.