Gender Inequality : Not Just A STEM Issue

Piece from a project tallying art world inequality and creating posters out of the data collected.

In this post, I’d like to talk about an issue that is close to my heart. It covers a range of bases, so I’ll try not to jump around too much. I have to start off by giving a little bit of history. I have always had a hyper-awareness towards injustice. I have a vivid childhood memory of cringing whenever the old Trix cereal commercials would come on in between my morning cartoons. I could just feel the righteous anger bubbling up inside of me as the kids taunted the Trix Bunny with choruses of “Silly rabbit …” They have no right to say that Trix are only for kids, not rabbits! He invented the freaking cereal! He’s on the cover of the box for crying out loud! There would be no colorful fruity shapes without him! (This was, of course, when I was young enough to think the animated characters running around before my eyes actually existed in real life.) So naturally, when I began to perceive instances of gender bias in the adult conversations I eavesdropped on and the kids around me at school, I did not approve. Basically, Lisa Simpson and I would have been soul mates. It was kind of a shock, since my home growing up had been completely void of any such thing. My brother and I were given the same expectations, and when we were approached differently by mom and dad it was due to our completely opposite personality types, not our gender. We were four years apart, kind of the perfect gap: close enough in age so that we could still relate to each other well enough to play together, but far enough apart so that we weren’t constantly feeling like we needed to compete. We shared toys all the time, and both played with stereotypical “boy” things and stereotypical “girl” things from time to time. It wasn’t really a big deal.

Despite what people think (I mean, everyone can vote now so it’s all good, right?), gender discrimination is not just a distant memory, and it continues to hurt both men and women, though for today I’ll mainly be talking about women. Gender separation in toys has gotten way worse than it ever was in the past, with every single little toy down to a basic set of blocks relegated to being pink or blue. Some consumers are finally saying enough is enough with the “Pink vs Blue” binary madness, and are also seriously starting to question what the doll section in any local walmart or toy store is communicating to young girls. I myself have wondered that same thing, and my queries have most often led to nothing good. Enter Lammily, a doll with realistic body proportions, moveable joints that allow her to do more than simply be a human clothes hanger, and stickers to add imperfections we all have like acne, scars, and cellulite.

The toy problem is just the tip of the iceberg. The US has one of the worst science gender gaps in the developed world, and marketing ridiculous shirts like these below to young girls certainly isn’t  helping.

It’s no wonder educators and innovators are doing anything and everything they can to encourage young girls towards STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics).

Every little bit helps, and I am in no way downing any of the goodhearted initiatives mentioned above, I just think we can do more. We can always do more, do better, be more comprehensive in our reach. I have to admit, if the Lammily doll would have existed when I was a kid, taking one look at her ultra-preppy wardrobe of mostly simple solids, I would have totally still begged for the anorexic doll with giant boobs, ideals be damned. Why can’t a realistic doll still wear lace and sequins or giant earrings or crazy neon floral patterns once in awhile? Realistically, that’s how some girls actually dress! Giving her a more subdued, athletic looking, polo-shirt-laden wardrobe isn’t revolutionary at all. In fact, in the real world, that sort of style is actually preferred and women who step outside of that and dress more “girly” are more likely to be perceived negatively. It has been proven that women who wear more masculine clothing (simple, straight silhouettes, angular lines, dark neutral colors) are perceived as more competent in the workforce, taken more seriously and given a higher level of respect in their current job, and are more likely to get hired to a new position. This is also why you see frantic posts by young women online asking whether it’s ok to be a feminist and wear makeup or dresses or high heels. Yes Virginia, there is as of yet no official uniform for thinking equality is a rad idea.

Similarly, encouraging a girl towards STEM who is truly interested in science but is simply intimidated or feels like “Well I’m not supposed to do this because I’m a girl,” or encouraging a girl who is worried to stand out from her peers and be teased if she admits she thinks math is fun, is truly awesome. How amazing for a kid to realize what their passion is so early in life, and to help them grow and learn in that passion is a beautiful thing. However, I sometimes worry that in trying to tear down walls we are simply creating a new sort of box. What about the artsy girls?

New York Times explains why we actually need STEAM (Science Technology Engineering ART Mathematics), STEM alone is not enough. The idea that a person is either right brained or left brained doesn’t work. We need to use both sides to be effective. I took science all 4 years of high school even though it wasn’t required. The decision was at first at the urging of my parents, but though the exams were killer, I loved getting to move forward into taking Chemistry and Physics and found the information and experiments in class fun and inspiring. When I teach children, I love integrating scientific experimentation into art. It’s great for keeping kids focused and involved. Recently I did a project with my children’s watercolor class where we tested how lemon juice, rubbing alcohol, salt, oil, and milk reacted with the paints, and afterword they made pictures incorporating the new textures they learned how to create.

Yes, girls are underrepersented in STEM fields but the fact of the matter is they are also woefully underrepresented in the art world. Art News reported this year on findings from over the last 7, where on average women artists exhibited in only 10-20% of the solo shows at American Institutions over the last 7 years. A slightly smaller percentage of women artists were featured in group shows. Before you protest, “But they are just picking the best art!” these percentages apply to non-anonomous submissions. Truthout reported in their article, Women Artists Still Face Discrimination, that studies have shown if you submit work to a juried exhibit and the jurors don’t know the gender of the person submitting, it ends up pretty equal in terms of who is selected. But as soon as the artist’s gender is known, women drop back to one third. It is why pen names are still a thing in art as well as literature. Famed writer of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has been pretty candid about the fact that way back when she was told she should publish the series under her initials rather than her first name, Joanna, because young men won’t want to read books written by a woman. (They will not only assume it to be poorly written, but will fear catching any residual “cooties”.)

Why choose only one genre of barrier to break down? We should be smashing all of them, all while encouraging our own children and the kids around us to excel in the area they love, whatever it ends up being.

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