New research is discovering that the “ambient environment,” the passive context in which activities and decisions occur, can have a big impact. In a paper by psychologist Sapna Cheryan and three colleagues, they recount how the ambient environment affected men’s and women’s interest in majoring in computer science and their sense that they were capable of doing so.
To test this, they invited some of the respondents into a neutral room, while others entered a room covered in “computer geeky” things: a Star Trek poster, comic books, video game boxes, empty soda cans and junk food, technical magazines, and computer software and hardware. (Don’t kill the messenger; these were items that other college students had agreed were typical of a “computer science geek.”)
Cheryan and colleagues found that men (the dark bars in the graph below) were unfazed by the geekery (they were slightly more likely to be interested if the environment was stereotypical, but the difference is within the margin of error). Women who encountered the geeked up room, however, were much less likely to say that they were considering a computer science major (the light bars).
This research is a great example of the ubiquitousness of the cues that tell us what types of interests, careers, hobbies, and activities are appropriate to us. Our ambient environment is rich with information about whether we belong. And that stuff matters.
Source: Cheryan, Sapna, Victoria Plaut, Paul Davies, and Claude Steele. 2009. Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97, 6: 1045-1060.
This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable. Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease. But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea! Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.
This screenshot of the front page of The Sun is an excellent example of the eroticization of violence against women and our insistent denial of it:
The article is a condemnation of a video game in which the goal is to rape a mother and her two daughters (and force them to have abortions if they get pregnant). They call the game “sick” and “shocking,” but also include a huge picture of the virtual rape victim sexily stripping down to her underwear. Twisty, at I Blame the Patriarchy, observes that “…in terms of screen real estate, titillating images take up more space on the Sun’s web page than actual copy…”
Notice, also, the “related story” about a girl murdered who had reported rape threats and then, to the right of that, a dating advertisement featuring a couple of girls making bedroom eyes at the viewer.
This is what rape culture looks like: a story about a video game that encourages players to rape and otherwise torture women and girls, alongside titillating images from that very game; a story about a “girl” who had actually been murdered, alongside a photo of her looking invitingly into the camera; and a dating website. With this material like this, we learn that sex, violence, and women aren’t separate concepts. Instead of learning to think about sex, violence, and women, we learn to think about, and fantasize about, sexviolencewomen.
New data about the science aptitude of boys and girls around the world inspires me to re-post this discussion from 2010.
Math ability, in some societies, is gendered. That is, many people believe that boys and men are better at math than girls and women and, further, that this difference is biological (hormonal, neurological, or somehow encoded on the Y chromosome).
But actual data about gender differences in math ability tell a very different story. Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang reviewed these differences in the New York Times. They report the following (based on the US unless otherwise noted):
• There is no difference in math aptitude before age 7. Starting in adolescence, some differences appear (boys score approximately 30-35 points higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT). But, scores on different subcategories of math vary tremendously (often with girls outperforming boys consistently).
• When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse. Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong. So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.
• That means that how we test for math ability is a political choice. If you report who is best at math, the answer is boys. If you report average math ability, it’s about the same.
• How you decide to test math ability is also political. Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes. Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.
• And, since girls often outperform boys in a practical setting, math aptitude (even measured at the levels of outstanding instead of average performance) doesn’t explain sex disparities in science careers (most of which, incidentally, only require you to be pretty good at math, as opposed to wildly genius at it). In any case, scoring high in math is only loosely related to who opts for a scientific career, especially for girls. Many high scoring girls don’t go into science, and many poor scoring boys do.
Now, let’s look at some international comparisons:
• Boys do better in only about ½ of the OECD nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences. In Iceland, girls outshine boys significantly.
• In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably. So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.
• Still, even in Iceland, girls overwhelmingly express more negative attitudes towards math.
So what’s the real story here? Well, one study found that the gender gap in math ability and the level of gender inequality in a society were highly correlated. That is, “…the gender gap in math, although it historically favors boys, disappears in more gender-equal societies.”
Part of the problem, then, is simply that girls and boys internalize the idea that they will be bad and good at math respectively because of crap like the “Math class is tough!” Barbie (sold and then retracted in 1992):
However, girls’ insecurity regarding their own math ability isn’t just because they internalize cultural norm, their elementary school teachers, who are over 90% female, sometimes do to and they teach math anxiety by example. A recent study has shown that, when they do, girl students do worse at math. From the abstract (this is pretty amazing):
There was no relation between a teacher’s [level of] math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year. By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement. Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall.
So, with only the possible exception of genius-level math talent, men and women likely have equal potential to be good (or bad) at math. But, in societies in which women are told that they shouldn’t or can’t do math, they don’t. And, as Fatistician said, “math is a skill.” People who think practicing it is pointless won’t practice it. And those who don’t practice, won’t be any good at it… Y chromosome or no.
We’ve collected several more examples of the tendency to present men as the norm, while women are a marked, non-default category. @LydNicholas tweeted us this example of a LEGO product advertised on their website. Notice that the blue version is a LEGO Time-Teach Minifigure Watch and Clock, while the pink version specifies that it’s for girls:
Jessica J. noticed that Wal-Mart Target helpfully lets you know where to find both neutral, plain old deodorant and women’s deodorant:
Jane G. sent us this photo of t-ball sets, one for girls and the other with no sex specified:
Aline, in Brazil, found these two wall painting kits. One is just a painting kit and the other is specifically “for women” (“para mulheres”). The latter, she said, claims to be a special offer, but is actually about $2 U.S. dollars more.
Eric Stoller pointed out that ESPN differentiates between college basketball and “women’s” basketball:
Lindsay H. pointed out that when you go to the U.S. Post Office’s website to forward your mail, it offers you the chance to subscribe to magazines. Those aimed at women (Cosmopolitan, First for Women, etc.) are in the category “Women,” while equivalent magazines for men (Esquire, Maxim) are not in a category titled “Men” but, rather, “Lifestyle”:
And Jane V.S. noticed that REI has various types of marked, “non-standard” sleeping bags, including those for tall people and women:
Renée Y. sent along another example, bike helmets:
Jessica B. spotted this pair of sibling outfits, coming in “Awesome Girl” and “Awesome Kid”:
E.W. searched Google for men’s specific road bikes and Google asked, “Don’t you mean women’s specific road bikes”? Because there are road bikes for people and road bikes for women.
Ann C. sent a screenshot of bubblebox, a site for children’s games. Notice that along the top there are seven options. The last is “girls,” suggesting that all the rest are for boys.
So, there you have it. In this world, all too often, there are people and there are women and girls.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.
It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play. Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:
Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:
The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits. I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:
Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.
They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys. Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.
It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism. Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later. Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.
Emile Durkheim, founding father of sociology and author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, would love the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Consider this excerpt from a British observer, Jonathan Raban, who watched the parade twenty years ago from a window on Central Park West. The parade, he said, was…
…the secular, American descendant of the European Catholic Easter procession in which all the icons and saints’ bones are removed from the churches and carried ceremonially around the town. The baseball hero, the gaseous, rubbery Mickey Mouse, the Mayflower pilgrims were the totems and treasure relics of a culture, as the New Orleans jazz and Sousa marches were its solemn music.
Had a serious-minded Martian been standing at the window, he would have learned a good deal by studying the parade’s idyllic version of American history. [guns, refugees, rebels]… The imaginative life of children was honored to a degree unknown on Mars — which was, perhaps, why matters of fact and matters of fiction were so confusingly jumbled up here, with Santa Claus and George Washington and Superman and Abraham Lincoln all stirred into the same pot.
He would be struck by the extraordinarily mythopoeic character of life in this strange country. People made myths and lived by them with an ease and fertility that would have been the envy of any tribe of Pacific islanders. Sometimes there were big myths that took possession of the whole society, sometimes little ones, casually manufactured, then trusted absolutely.
In my class, when we read about religion, Durkheim mostly, I have students write a paper about a secular ritual. One goal of the assignment is to get them to see that, from a functional perspective, a ritual is a way to generate and distribute the energy for binding the members of a society together. It doesn’t really matter whether the ritual is officially secular or religious. In fact, if you’re a complete stranger to the culture, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.
No student has ever chosen the Macy’s parade. I wonder why not. Raban, who is from England, not Mars, senses the religious aura of the parade with its many gods. Had there been a Macy’s in ancient Greece, the parade would no doubt have had balloon representations of Demeter (god of the harvest), Poseidon (god of the sea), Aphrodite (god of beauty), Hermes (god of silk scarves), and of course in the U.S., Hebe (goddess of youth). And all the rest. We’re not Athenians. Instead, we throng the streets for icons like Snoopy and Spiderman, Pikachu, Bullwinkle, and Spongebob, but the idea is the same. They are our totems, our gods.
I imagine Durkheim on Central Park West, watching the children and grown-ups that have come together here to look up to these huge embodiments of our cultural ideals. Durkheim feels a frisson, a shiver of recognition. What better way to symbolize the idea about the binding power of ritual social energy?