In 2015, I sat in a darkened auditorium in a hotel in Los Angeles, wanting to throw up. I had word poisoning.
What was the source? The messenger’s message.
In that dark room, Shannon Hale, a keynote speaker at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, was turning the spotlight on gender bias. She recounted stories of school visits, featuring her Princess Academy books, where boys either openly booed the idea of princesses or had been excluded from her assemblies because teachers or school admin believed “boys wouldn’t be interested in her books.”
While I hadn’t said those exact words, I was standing at the top of the slippery slope that takes one there. I had been volunteering in our school’s library and was guilty of saying: “This book has boy written all over it” or “Girls will really like this book.” Possibly more than once.
Fast forward three years, and I am still seized by a tsunami of nausea as I make this confession. Thankfully, I never revealed my bias to a child, but it did influence my recommendations.
Oddly enough, I’ve fought gender pigeon-holing my entire life. I was a “tomboy” who climbed trees and rambled through woods in farm country, who preferred riding horses and doing chores outside to playing with dolls. Pink did not color my world. I was good at math and had no interest in Home Ec. So I went to engineering school.
While earning my degree in Industrial Engineering, I was inducted into two honor societies, Tau Beta Pi and Alpha Pi Mu. When I ran for president of one of the local chapters, I lost. Not surprising at the time, since I was the only female in the room. When I graduated In 1985, I was ranked first in my class, an honor I had worked for, one that could not be voted away.
Then came the IBM Marketing Education program, a grueling series of professional development classes that were considered a “mini-MBA.” Again, I ran for president of my class and lost to a man. One of my female classmates told me afterward that she would have voted for me if I hadn’t teared up during my stump speech. I had gotten emotional while marveling at how we had all helped each other through the program.
The story I’d used to begin my speech came from my teenage “Careers in Zoology” club. There, too, I’d run for president, against a guy who offered a handful of words about his qualifications: he had a tank of tropical fish. I gave the zoology club a full paragraph of my qualifications: I lived on a farm, bottle fed lambs and calves, assisted with de-worming and lambing season, knew how to milk cows, and rode and groomed horses.
I lost. Perhaps my qualifications were not as exotic as tropical fish.
Years later, how could I, a female engineer who’d been disappointed three times in my efforts to land a spot on the elevator to the presidential suite, have turned into someone who segregates boys and girls into generic pools of likes and dislikes?
Well, I have a lame explanation for my temporary insanity. I gave birth to a child who’s a very traditional “boy” boy, one whose first word was not “mom” but “round,” because that’s what wheels are. He also loves backyard ballistics, roughouses like a puppy with his father, and spends much of his time making contraptions and blowing things up in the garage when he‘s not reading MAKE Magazines. “Mom, I know you don’t like Nerf guns,” he says, “but I like figuring out how the mechanisms work and changing them.” OK, as an engineer, I can appreciate that.
On the bell curve of “boy-dom,” he’s perhaps a standard deviation above the “average” in some respects. My mathematical background, the one that allows me to make generalizations based on statistics, led me to believe that there was something to gender differences.
Can you see how that poison seeped into my thinking?
Yes, statistics and norms are vital to data analysis in every field, but if we then use this information to pigeon-hole individuals, or to perpetuate and reinforce specific behaviors, we influence the data for all future samples of our population. Shannon Hale has already documented this: generalizations about what will interest girls or boys are used to steer girls towards her books while boys are steered away from them. What do we end up with? Über princes, princesses, and marginalization of those who feel otherwise.
There is an antidote to the poison. And it’s contained in those three important words: In some respects. Clearly, a single data point on one bell curve doesn’t fully describe my son. He’s an amalgam of myriad data points and bell curves.
He’s also the child who read Charlotte’s Web, and to this day cannot kill a spider even though he’s afraid of them. His tender heart breaks at the thought of someone mistreating any animal. He cries at sad parts in movies and books.
So why is emotional sensitivity considered a female trait?
Even if what we, as a society, are really trying to say is that “the average boy is like” or “the average girl is like,” it’s still not helpful to the conversation and contrary to what we’re trying to overcome in this microcosm: bias in reading due to gender of the main protagonist, subject matter, or perceived “girl” themes.
Biased statements or assumptions also do a disservice to those who don’t fit into average boxes or who move fluidly among gender types. In truth, that’s all of us. An individual is an amalgam of “boy” and “girl” bell curves, skewed or otherwise. We can all benefit from being less rigid in our thinking. We can stop identifying traits as being male or female. We can toss out the bell curves and “norms” that reinforce bias.
Let’s strike the poisonous use of gendered language from our recommendations and our general discourse, and say instead: “If you love animals, you should enjoy this book.” or “If you love spaceships and technology, you should enjoy this book.” By doing so, we’re acknowledging that everyone has a variety of interests regardless of gender identity. It’s not “today I feel like being a girl” or “today I feel like being a boy” or “today I feel androgynous.” It’s today I feel like doing this, that, or the other thing.
Maybe I’ll read picture books about frogs while wearing a sparkly dress, chew my fingernails, AND think about how differential equations can be used to describe and predict the spread of disease, or control guidance systems in driverless cars. Cause that’s who I am—today.
Who are you?
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