Jim Huggins (jkhuggins) wrote,
Jim Huggins

On Christmas shopping and gender biases --- even for those of us who know better

'Tis the season ... fa la la la la, la la la la. 

(Okay, admit it, you counted the "la"s to see if I got it right.  I keep double-checking.  That's how I roll.)

Yesterday, I took time away from work to head out for some Christmas shopping.  I have a stereotypical male approach to shopping.  Shopping isn't a cultural experience; it's a task to perform.  You make a list, you go out, you find the stuff, you bang it over the head with a club, you drag it home.  (Not unlike a neanderthal hunting wild game.)  Thankfully, I married a woman who has the same attitude towards shopping ... yet another way that we are well-suited to each other.

The downside of that approach to shopping is that it makes the task much more difficult when you don't know what you want to acquire.  Case in point: my trip out yesterday.  One of the principle objectives was to buy gifts for two of my nieces.  We only see them a few times a year, so we don't have all of the day-to-day interactions that help you get to know them and what they'd appreciate as a gift.  N is 8 years old, is quite bright, and doesn't quite fit the "frilly girl" picture that some of her sisters have ... so we brainstormed that perhaps something science-y, or a remote-controlled something, might be the best idea.  (We got her older brother a remote-controlled Batman helicopter thingy last year, so there would be some precedent.)

So, I wandered into a gaming store and noticed a display of science kits up front.  Great, I wandered up to see what was there.  The display featured two kits.  One was a kit proclaiming dozens of different ways to make slime, with Bratz-style drawings of a boy on the cover.  The other kit, immediately beside it, proclaimed dozens of different ways to make flavored ices, with a simpler cartoon of a young lady enjoying her fresh concoction, with a light pastel cover.

Before I noticed what I was doing, I instinctively said to myself, "oh, that's the girl's science kit, N ought to like that.  Let's take a look."

And then I stopped dead in my tracks and noticed what I had done ... and was embarrassed. 

Seriously?  My wife holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and is objectively much smarter than I.  (She outranks me in number of degrees held, four to three.)  My daughter is a brilliant middle-school student, kicking butt in just about every academic subject she tackles.  I teach a module in my course on computing ethics about the problems of gender bias in computing.  I follow a number of important people in the filed of CS and gender equity online.

And in an unobserved and unexpected moment, my cultural programming kicked in, and I categorized science kits as "male" and "female".

To be fair, I had some help in my moment of weakness.  The packaging featured a boy on one and a girl on the other.  The package colors fit the stereotypes of "male colors" and "female colors".  The artwork even suggested gender difference.

Of course, I realize that I'm not alone.   One of the more important works in the field of gender and computing is Margolis & Fisher's "Unlocking The Clubhouse". I really need to go back and re-read this; it's been that pivotable in changing how I think about the topic.  In particular, I remember a story told by the author, about her young daughter Sophie and why she didn't play with Legos at school, even though she played with them at home:

In answer to my question why she doesn't play at the Lego table at preschool, Sophie told me that "the boys take all the cool stuff."  The "cool stuff", apparently, are the little antennas, the helmets, the accessories that bring the structures to life.  OK, so what about home where there are no boys to take all the cool stuff?  You would think that with this competence that Mark and I would have filled her room with Legos.  This, unfortunately, is not the case.  Even as a feminist who studies girls and technology and knows how important these early toy choices are, I did not buy Sophie Legos in the same way I buy her rocks for her rock collection.  Could it be that I never played with Legos and that I am not that familiar with them?  I am sure that plays a part.  Could it be that Mark unconsciously minimizes the importance of Legos for his daughter?  He is mortified to think so.  Could it be that we didn't detect Sophie's passion for Legos?  She is competent, but where is the passion?  While she follows a schematic with ease, she doesn't clamor for us to buy more, and she doesn't break out on her own and do free designs with the Legos.  The Legos never became her toy of choice.  Could this be because Mark and I never conveyed unbridled enthusiasm and joy when she played with Legos, the way we jump up and down when she practices the piano or makes a great sketch?  Could it be that neither of us has taken the time to show her the endless possibilities, to share our excitement with her?  This is the truth: I truly believe that if Sophie were a boy, I would have filled her room with Legos.

Even those of us who know better fall prey to the patterns.  At least I'm in good company.

It's good to see that others are thinking about this as well.  Many of you have seen the news articles lately about the 13-year-old girl who wanted to buy an Easy-Bake oven for her 4-year-old brother, but was dismayed that the oven only comes in a pink and purple floral print.  She publicly petitioned Hasbro to produce a version of the oven in more gender-neutral colors.  Coincidentally, Hasbro was already working on such plans, and invited her to HQ to see the new version (with a black and silver color scheme).

Again, it was brought home to me how difficult it is to eliminate cultural gender biases.  Even when we're consciously rejecting them, we've been subconsciously trained to accept them.  I hope I'll continue to learn and do better, for all my students (and I include my daughter among them).

(P.S.  I ended up buying N the Mythbusters Forces of Flight science kit.  Don't tell her about it.  It's a surprise.)

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