"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Can Boy Toys Make Girls Engineers?

I remember when my kids were little in the early 80s, the mothers at the park in my liberal enclave of Northwest Washington were, a decade removed from hardcore feminism, still encouraging their daughters to play with dump trucks, fire engines, bulldozers, and cranes instead of dolls and frilly things.  What usually happened, of course, was that the boys simply grabbed the machinery, grunted out sounds of motors and exhaust, and made miniature cities in the sandbox.  The girls, although for a moment surprised, simply dug into Mommy’s bag and pulled out Barbie.  It had been hidden under sweaters, diapers, and Kleenex, but it was there ‘just in case’.  It didn’t take long for Mommies to realize that the masculinization of their daughters was a lost cause.  No matter what they did, the girls played with dolls, fussed with each others’ hair, and wore frilly dresses.  Of course the mothers didn’t call their re-education process ‘masculinization’ – they were aspiring to a ‘gender-neutral play environment’, but the result was the same.  All the dump trucks, camouflage pants, and tool belts thrown at them were ignored by their daughters but played with so enthusiastically by their sons that their wheels and doors came off.

Eventually, these women gave up on the boy toy campaign, and began to realize that their own emerging professions of law and medicine were perfect examples of gender-neutral occupations.  Men could pump up their maleness leading their lieutenants through the arteries and valves of the body, and women could satisfy their care-giving urges.  Men loved the thrill of battle in the courtroom and women could satisfy their sense of community by creating a better social contract.  Who cared what their daughters or sons played with?  Opportunities were numerous.

A lot of research has been done over the last few decades to try to get at the bottom of the toy issue.  ‘Progressives’ have been convinced that girls were not engineers, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators and car mechanics because their socialization made it impossible.  It was precisely because they were given girly toys and dresses and not things with gears and wheels they would shy away from the real thing.  Conservatives were convinced of what they saw – men and women are different, have different tastes and preferences, and thank God are different from men, so let children play with whatever suits them.

However, no matter how hard the latter-day feminists of the 80s tried and the more they tried to hide Barbie, their daughters persistently refused to become engineers (forget the working class heavy equipment operator, a non-starter for everyone in my neighborhood).  Current estimates are that over 90 percent of engineers are men.  Theories abound to explain this.  Former Harvard President Larry Summers got fired for suggesting that, well, maybe there was something to this hardwired gender thing.  Others close to Summers’ assumption about inherent male-female gender differences said that women were naturally drawn to caring professions (nursing, international health care, social services, medicine) and repelled by the idea of pushing dirt around.   On the other end of the spectrum, liberal observers postulated that gender stereotypes persist, male enforcement remains the rule, and society does little to break down differences.  Look at the Soviet Union, they crowed before 1989, showing off pictures of zaftig female riveters who could do anything

The debate should be over since if women want to become engineers there is no reason why they can’t.  There are no oil-smeared glass doors keeping them out.  And besides, just about every other scientific profession has high proportions of women (out of my daughter’s high school class of 60 three girls became neuroscientists and two biochemists); but people on a mission cannot leave well enough alone.

So, along comes Goldiblox, the girl engineer:


Debbie Sterling, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur is out to prove that with the right tweaking and direction, you can combine the best female impulses with the nuts and bolts of building things. Her ideas are echoed in the work of Christine Cunningham, VP of the Museum of Science in Boston:

When Cunningham set about to redesign an electrical-engineering activity with girls in mind, she and her team embedded it in a story about a girl living on a ranch who needs to keep a trough filled with water for the baby lambs. The character decides to build herself an alarm as a reminder. That gives girls a purpose, and they'll "engage in the same tasks and have the same sort of outcomes, because they're linking it back to the safety of the baby lambs," Cunningham told me. (Psychology Today, April 17, 2008 Satoshi Kanazawa)

We all love compromise, but linking baby lambs with electrical engineering seems a little far-fetched to me; and the above picture showing a budding girl engineer spooling pink ribbon in the project seems silly.

These ‘progressive’ behaviorists, however, have to deal with harder science, and various researchers working with primates have found that the same gender differences in toy selection for children occurs in monkeys.  In 2002 two researchers from Texas A&M and City University, London, designed an experiment whereby male and female vervet monkeys were asked to choose between classically male toys (trucks) and female (dolls), with gender-neutral toys as a control

Their data demonstrated that male monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the masculine toys, and the female monkeys showed significantly greater interest in the feminine toys. (Kanazawa)

A subsequent study confirmed these findings.  In a soon-to-be published study, researchers at Emory University concluded:

When given a choice between stereotypically male “wheeled toys” (such as a wagon, a truck, and a car) and stereotypically female “plush toys” (such as Winnie the Pooh, Raggedy Ann, and a koala bear hand puppet), male rhesus monkeys show strong and significant preference for the masculine toys. Female rhesus monkeys show preference for the feminine toys (Kanazawa).

I am not sure what this all proves, and even if it does, it will only confirm what parents all over the world have known for millennia – girls and boys play with gender-specific toys.  Whether or not this has any relationship at all with professional choices, who knows? But women are outpacing men in most professions, so maybe let’s not fuss with engineering.

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