Science For Princesses

I have always known that I loved science, that delicious alliance of imagination and methodical testing that could help you figure out something about how a piece of the world worked. However, being born at the tail-end of the 1960s, I grew up in a culture that wanted me to know that girls were not supposed to like science. In fact, between toy commercials and TV shows, teachers and peers, I got the message pretty quickly that science is not something for girls. Rather, girls should turn their attention to more important matters . . . like being properly feminine. There was a way that girls were supposed to be—neat and tidy and pretty and pink and quiet and well-behaved. I was not any of those things. I didn’t want to be any of those things. I didn't know how to be any of those things. And, as far as I could tell, trying to be those things was not going to help me get my hands on the science-y stuff that I wanted. So what was the point?

The fact that I was smart and didn’t know enough to hide it meant that my social interactions consisted primarily of being taunted or snickered at.

As you might imagine, going to school in the 1970s and 1980s was not a lot of fun for me. My peers made school hell because I wasn’t good at performing femininity. It was bad enough that I didn’t play with dolls or toy ponies, that I couldn’t work out an appropriate “look” with designer jeans, torn sweatshirt, and legwarmers, that my attempts at makeup were laughable and that my hair was not flipped, teased, or sprayed. The fact that I was smart and didn’t know enough to hide it meant that my social interactions consisted primarily of being taunted or snickered at. Meanwhile some of my teachers made school hell by refusing to believe that I could handle advanced math and science—despite the fact that I was running through everything they could give me and asking for more—because I was a girl.

The most brazen example of this was the math teacher I had for the first half of eighth grade. I had just returned from my first summer at sleep-away math camp, which was a big geek rite of passage but also something of a sausage-fest; loving math there was cool, but being a girl there was weird. In my three weeks at math camp, I pounded through Algebra I and Algebra II, and was ready to dig into Geometry back at my junior high.

Except, this teacher in my "self-paced" math class thought my pace was entirely too fast to be ladylike. He insisted that I thoroughly review all the algebra I had just mastered, and did some serious foot-dragging about getting a geometry textbook into my hands. The boys in this class were not told to slow down, but instead to go faster, and two of them had copies of the elusive geometry textbook. My recollection is that it took a somewhat threatening phone call from my mom before my geometry book appeared, and by that point we were already starting the second quarter of the school year.

The very day I got the geometry text, I was called out of my eighth-period class to the school nurse's office. My brother, a seventh grader, had decided to leap over a net in the gymnasium—and, given that it was a volleyball net, not a tennis net, he caught his foot on the way over and broke his elbow on the way down. While I waited with him in the emergency room for our parents to arrive, I whipped through the first four chapters (out of sixteen) of the geometry book. I finally had the source material, and the time, to do some serious math, and no one in the hospital waiting room stepped up to tell me that I was violating society's expectations of a young lady by working through proofs while my brother was X-rayed.

When my kids were old enough for science experiments, I was hit in the face with the same old problem.

I got through my childhood and adolescence, as one does. By the time I was an adult, ready to raise my own kids, I had high hopes that American culture would not still be broken in this particular way, that we would have fixed our blind spot that makes science-loving girls seem weird. When I started raising my daughters, I did what I could at home to challenge the gendered expectations. We took an empirical approach to all the bits of the world they wanted to figure out, which meant I was asking “why?” at the same rate as my toddlers. We observed, we looked for patterns, we imagined explanations, and we figured out ways to test our explanations. But when the kids were old enough for a more systematic exploration of science experiments, the first time I cracked open the toy catalogs, from what were supposed to be the really good, really smart purveyors of educational toys, I was hit in the face with the same old problem.

The science kits in these catalogs came in two flavors: real science kits and science kits for girls.

The science kits in these catalogs came in two flavors: real science kits and science kits for girls. The girls’ kits were pink, of course, and focused on activities girls are supposed to like: concocting lip gloss, or perfume, or soap, or maybe growing pretty crystals. The boxes were covered with pictures of girls in eye makeup and off-the-shoulder blouses, as if to say, “Nothing about doing these activities need get in the way of the pressing task of conforming to society’s gender expectations!”

The boys’ kits mostly focused on activities that involved taking things apart, or blowing things up, or examining the world in very fine detail—the kind of activities I wanted to do as a kid. And the girls’ kits were packaged in such a way that, if I had been a kid who didn’t already know that she wanted to do science, they might have scared me off science completely. They were offering science in the form of pink microscopes with less magnification power than the blue ones (something readily apparent in the product descriptions on the Toys R Us website). Instead of letting girls actually blow stuff up, they offered girls the chance to make bath bombs—and as it turns out, bath bombs don't blow up. They dissolve with a soft fizzing sound rather than exploding when they make contact with water. Which is kind of a rip-off.

These kits basically said, even in science you girls will be required to be feminine or face the consequences. They were tools of oppression in a pretty pink box.

By this stage of my life, I was blogging as well as parenting, and heavily gendered science kits for kids were exactly the kind of nursable grudge that provided good blog fodder. In November 2006, I wrote what I felt was the definitive critique of science kits for girls and the harm they can do. And, of course, as evidence of just how big an impact earnest blogging has on the larger world, retailers still kept marketing their boxes of gendered expectation enforcement disguised as kits to help girls learn about science.

Indeed, by November 2011, some online retailers seemed to have made the gendering of the kids’ science kits even more extreme, enough so that the science-y precincts of the blogosphere and the Twitters were commenting on it.

I’ll be honest: I was tired. I did not feel like blogging about this again. I was frustrated with a culture that refused to get out of this particular rut. I said to myself, I have been banging my head against this particular wall with this culture, and maybe it would be more personally fulfilling to bang my head against a different wall that might move a little.

But, I took a breath. I thought, Okay, everyone’s doing it, so I’ll try to explain again what it is about these kits that I find problematic—that they’re not really trying to interest kids in science so much as saying the only hook we’ve got with girls is their femininity. And, they’re not actually cultivating an interest in science so much as reminding girls: Even in science, you are expected to do this femininity thing or you will get crap. That’s a rotten message to give someone you’re purportedly trying to get interested in science.

I blogged about what was wrong with these gendered science kits and the message they seemed to be sending to girls, expecting that the wall against which I was banging my head would stay in place.

Except this time, it moved a little.

In December of 2011, one of the companies that sold science kits for boys and science kits for girls, Edmund Scientific, announced that it had noticed these blog posts. Along with letters and emails the company had gotten, the blog posts had helped them hear and understand the concerns about what kind of message these kits were sending about girls and science. Edmund Scientific said that this was not a message they wanted to send out as they were selling science kits, so they were going to stop. They would no longer market novelty science kits as being “for girls” or “for boys”—they would now just be science kits, for whatever kinds of kids wanted to use them.

The afternoon I found this out, I was so excited that I had to share the news with my kids, both of whom are daughters.

My oldest is a twelve-year-old in seventh grade who had a six-month stretch in kindergarten during which she experimented with officially sanctioned femininity as recognized by our culture and then decided it was just not worth the trouble. She hasn’t really bothered with it since. Aside from the usual points of conflict between parent and child—clean up after yourself, do your homework, stop fighting with your sibling—she and I have always basically understood each other. What she wanted from me, I was generally equipped to give her. When I told her about it, she recognized Edmund Scientific’s announcement as good news but also seemed to take it as not totally surprising. Through the lens of her youthful optimism, it’s sensible that when you point out a problem with how things are, people fix it.

The reaction from my youngest, a ten-year-old in fifth grade, was more emotional.

My youngest, you see, is something of a pretty pink princess. She loves pretty clothes. She will sneak out of the house with make-up any chance she gets. Her favorite recent gift is a lint-roller. Given that I still have trouble performing femininity, this makes our relationship complicated. She has voiced her disappointment at not having a mother who’s good with a curling iron or who could teach her how to put on eye shadow. She wonders why I can’t bring a fashion magazine into the house every now and then. Other people’s mothers seem less hopeless with this stuff than her mother.

But she was the one, as I told her about Edmund Scientific’s announcement as I walked her home from school, who dropped her bag to give me a high-five and a hug. She was the one who got excited and emotional, and felt in her gut, rather than just knowing intellectually, that the world had just become a little bit better. Her parents had never given her a hard time for wanting to do science from a kit marketed as “for boys,” but her peers had. And as much as she liked the activities and modes of self-expression on the feminine side of the line, she did not appreciate being denied the options that others had classified as not feminine. That kind of policing, she had told me more than once, was just not fair.

Because my daughter who loves to dress up also loves science. My daughter who does her nails is also a fierce goalie on her soccer team. My daughter who enjoys wearing pantyhose (something I will never understand) can also tell fart jokes with the best of them. A pretty pink princess has facets.

As the girlier of my daughters rejoiced that gendered science kits might be going the way of the dinosaur, some other voices in the blogosphere nudged me to think about a connected problem, whether we should make room for pink microscopes—whether in our objections to bundling science kits with narrow expectations about the right way to be a girl (or a boy) we might not be guilty of “pink-bashing” and imposing another set of overly narrow expectations.

My teachers and peers growing up told me, “Science isn’t for girls.” Their successors might now be saying, “Science isn’t for girly girls.”

The danger here is that clearing away science kits that seem to impose compulsory femininity might reinforce another assumption that runs pretty close to what I kept hearing from my teachers and peers growing up. They told me, “Science isn’t for girls.” Their successors might now be saying, “Science isn’t for girly girls.” In other words, girls can do science, but they probably won’t also be the girls who like pretty clothes and make-up and knitting and such. Because being a girl isn’t in opposition to liking science, but being feminine might be.

This attitude isn’t a hypothetical. During my misspent scientific youth in a chemistry department, I saw at close range the ways the female graduate students were regarded by the male graduate students—and faculty members. Women whose research went very well, and who got that research published, were assumed to have had a lot of help, although no one seemed to make that assumption about their male classmates when their research was successful. A woman’s research focus was often assumed to be “not very significant,” especially if she was making rapid progress on her project and getting her PhD after four or five years rather than seven or eight, and doubly so if she wore make-up, wore heels, or did her nails, or was nice. One of my lab-mates was routinely dismissed in this way, although if any of the doubters had bothered to read her detailed lab notebooks in her loopy script—some of them, admittedly, in purple ink—they would have seen that her secret was that she was tremendously smart and frighteningly organized in attacking her research.

Though she was an amazing scientist, she was made to feel out of place in the tribe of science because she was a pretty pink princess.

I realized we need to cut this out. It’s not just that some of the girls who want to do science are not pretty pink princesses, and that some of the pretty pink princesses want to do science. It’s not just that the scientific community—and the broader public depending on that community to build knowledge—will benefit from the talents of all kinds of women (and men) who do science. It’s that there’s something deeply unfair about telling kids that there’s a right way to be a girl, or a right way to be a boy, and that they’d better conform or else. There’s also something deeply unfair about telling scientists that the right way to be a scientist means they have to reject certain options for leisure activities, grooming, and dress, even when they’re off the clock.

The world I want for my daughters—for the tomboy and the pretty pink princess—is one where they can express who they are authentically.

The world I want for my daughters—for the tomboy and the pretty pink princess—is one where they can express who they are authentically, and where they can pursue what really interests them without some yahoo trying to tell them that’s not something girls or women do. It’s also one where the tribe of science welcomes people who can do science without policing how well they fit to a stereotype of what kind of people should be doing science.

If the larger culture isn’t where it should be yet, I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that the scientific culture isn’t there, either—the two are connected. But this just means that we have to notice the connections, and some of the unnecessary baggage we bring from the culture to the tribe of science, as we keep fighting to make the world these kids deserve—the world that we deserve.

Janet D. Stemwedel is a non-practicing physical chemist and associate professor of philosophy at San José State University. Along with blogging, parenting, and riding out the California budget crisis, she is writing a book on ethics in science.

Art by Joe Wierenga. Full-size paper doll available when you click through the illustration below.