Friday, January 25, 2019

Gender Disparity Barbie

Last week I found myself in the Barbie aisle at Walmart, picking out a present for my son's seventh birthday. Now, before anyone praises my noble attempt to eradicate gender stereotype with this particular gift choice, I'm afraid I have to steer you toward what I noticed in the clearance section while I was there.

Robot Engineer Barbie and Astronaut Barbie, both discounted. Suspicious, I asked the manager why certain Barbies were on clearance and not others, and was told that it was to clear an excess of inventory. In other words, these Barbies weren't selling.

Not on clearance?

Teacher Barbie, Babysitter Barbie, Music Teacher Barbie, and Gymnastics Coach Barbie.

This made me curious.

Limited by the research options available to suburban stay-at-home moms such as myself, I launched a further investigation the best way I knew how - in the form of an Instagram poll, requesting that my friends with daughters under age 12 ask them, in a non leading manner, which of four different career Barbies she would most like to play with.

Of 51 responses,

23 (45%) chose Babysitter Barbie
13 (25%) chose Teacher Barbie
8 (16%) chose Robot Engineer Barbie
7 (14%) chose Astronaut Barbie

Obviously, this wasn't a flawless study. Participants were limited to children of my Instagram friends, and the Babysitter and Teacher Barbies come with more accessories than the Engineer and Astronaut. But it was the best I could do. You're welcome to unravel it, but first please put in a good word for me at the Boston Globe so I can finally start conducting higher quality investigations.

I was also hoping to acquire official numbers from Mattel on the popularity of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) career Barbies, but the only statistic I could find was a 15% drop in sales in 2017 when they took away her thigh gap and introduced "real" body types, but clearly that deserves its own separate blog post.

So while I may be attributing way too much meaning to the sale of a doll whose waist can't even accommodate internal organs, all of this made me think.

So much attention, money and effort is focused on narrowing the gender gap in STEM fields, and for very good reason. Women are undeniably underrepresented in science and engineering. While they make up about half of STEM bachelors degrees and graduate school enrollees, they hold only about 29% of related jobs in the field.

And it's certainly not because they are less capable. Female students consistently perform as well or better than male classmates in high school and college math.

So why the disparity?

Read any of thousands of speculative articles online, and you'll find the following most common explanations - Bias. Obstacles in schooling. Cultural stereotyping. Gender discrimination. Sexual harassment, etc. All are valid, and all obviously very concerning and worthy of addressing.

But what also concerns me is that so few seem willing to discuss what seemed so obvious to me in the Walmart Barbie aisle, and looking at the results of my homespun poll.

Maybe girls don't aspire to STEM careers because they don't want to.

I know it's so much more fun to blame the patriarchy, but I really think that empirically, you can't find a stronger argument. The research showing an inherent difference in interests between males and females is politically incorrect for sure, but it's also staggering. For instance -

Multiple studies have shown that newborn girls prefer looking at faces, while newborn boys prefer looking at mechanical things, like mobiles.

Also, babies as young as 9-months old prefer to play with toys stereotyed to their own gender, with infant girls showing a strong preference for dolls and cooking items, and boys selecting cars, toys, and shovels.

As for the disparity in job selection, it is fascinating to observe that in countries with the greatest gender equality in education and employment opportunities, women are actually far LESS likely to choose math and science professions.

Females also have more emotional brains, and surpass their male counterparts in verbal skills. All of this contributes to the fact that in general, women prefer working with people (physicians, teachers), while men prefer working with things (engineers, mechanics).

Of course, none of this is absolute. There are plenty of girls who would much rather play with a soccer ball than a baby doll and work with computers instead of children, and my own son asked for Barbies for his birthday.  But I'm not suggesting that we steer all girls away from STEM careers. I'm suggesting that when they steer themselves away, we don't treat it like a national crisis.

The National Science Foundation recently announced a campaign intended to "un-brainwash" girls and increase their chances of choosing STEM. I have a 14-year old daughter who wants to be an interior designer and homemaker, and has no interest in coding or robotics. Am I to assume she's been brainwashed?

Mabye the NSF should also un-brainwash these monkeys while they're at it.

And then there are campaigns that try to attract girls to the field with the message that their gender is underrepresented. LOL, as though this is motivating. Who makes career decisions based on what society needs? "Gosh, I really want to be a musician, but I suppose I can take one for the team and major in electrical engineering."

So should we continue to encourage them? Sure. Those who excel at math and science certainly deserve to understand their options. But if and when the majority continue to choose teaching, art, childcare, medicine, or public policy instead, I don't think it means we have failed them.

I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is not how many of them are scientists and mathematicians. I think the measure of how well a society serves its girls and women is how many of them pursue what they're passionate about. Whatever that is. The girl who is passionate about starting her own tech company is no more valuable than the girl who is passionate about being a preschool teacher.

She's just luckier, because her preferred Barbie is cheaper.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Genderbred Houses

My 14-year old daughter invited friends over tonight to make gingerbread houses. She's our oldest child, and it was the first time she has hosted both boys and girls. After everyone left and my husband and I were scraping up piles of candy and frosting, we invented a new Christmas game I thought you might enjoy.

It's called "Girl or Boy?"

To play, all you have to do is identify the gender of the following gingerbread house architects -

1. Girl or Boy? 

2. Girl or Boy? 

3. Girl or Boy?

4. Girl or Boy?

5. Girl or Boy? 

6. Girl or Boy?

7. Girl or Boy?

8. Girl or Boy? 

9. Girl or Boy? 

10. Girl or Boy?

* All answers were confirmed by the hostess 
1. Girl
2. Boy
3. Girl
4. Boy
5. Girl 
6. Boy
7. Girl
8. Boy
9. Girl
10. Boy 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Presence of Presents

Every December, when Christmas shopping becomes the default topic of conversation among moms at class parties and playdate pickups, I find myself apologizing, in one form or another, for the number of presents I plan to buy my kids. 

Usually it's the moment someone declares their adherence to the 'Four Gift Rule' - Something their kids want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read, and I hesitate to admit that I follow more of a "Four (hundred) Gift Rule," which includes something they certainly don't need, something they already have several of, something outside the budget, something Jack tried to talk me out of, etc. 

But this year, I've turned over a new holly leaf. This year I'm coming clean with the fact that I spoil my kids on Christmas, and won't let anyone bah humbug me about it. 

Now, if the four gift rule works for your family, I applaud you. I like that it's simple, budget-friendly, and sets clear expectations. If limiting your number of purchases decreases your stress level or makes you feel like you're gleaning more from season, by all means! Just please don't assume that the ever-growing stack of Amazon packages on my doorstep in December, on the other hand, mean that we've lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas.

Both Jack and I grew up in hard working, middle class families. We had parents who were disciplined, self-sacrificing, and taught us all about charity, gratitude, and delayed gratification.  But when Christmas came, all bets were off. Every December, my mom stopped at nothing to make our house look, smell, taste and feel like magic, and piled so many presents under the tree they climbed halfway to the star. The year Cabbage Patch Dolls were sold out across America? My sisters and I opened NINE OF THEM, collectively. Jack also remembers all his dreams coming true on Christmas morning, and we both recall fondly the thrill of being unable to sleep the night before, and the giddy anticipation of lining up in the morning, youngest to oldest, waiting for Dad to return from his scouting mission and declare that Santa had come. And boy, had he. 

Doing the same for our kids allows us to relive a bit of our own childhood through their eyes.  Because let's be honest, being an adult is hard. With age come burdens, worries and responsibilities that evolve, but never leave you. Childhood is the one and only shot we are given in life, and it is such a quick one, to experience pure, unadulterated wonder. If you're lucky enough to have such a childhood, the magic of those memories can sustain you well into adulthood. Go big I say, as there will be plenty of opportunities later to learn about deprivation.  

I believe that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, and of everything that entails - forgiveness, salvation, love, and service. I also don't think that any of those gifts can be negated by one morning of being buried in wrapping paper. Must there be a linear relationship between how minimalist we are, and how well we're teaching our kids about charity? 

So when I hear it suggested that Christmas gifts be kept to a minimum to avoid raising spoiled or materialistic children, I always wonder why that lesson has to be taught on December 25th? I spend 364 days a year saying no to my kids. I say no at the grocery store. I say no at Target. I say no when they beg for the same toy their friend has. They do extra chores to earn privileges, save for their own purchases, participate in charitable causes, and offer daily prayers of gratitude. Surely our collective efforts to raise hard-working, generous humans build a foundation that can't jeopardized by a single morning of indulgence. 

At least, I sure hope that's the case. Because of all the hats I wear as a mother, Santa's is my favorite. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Privilege Walk

As I watched the election results Tuesday night I sincerely enjoyed, for a moment, knowing that almost everyone in America had something to be happy about. Democrats flipped the House. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate (right Florida?). We could all celebrate! Even if what we were celebrating was division.

And speaking of division!

This week my 9th grade daughter Jolie told me that she participated in something called a "Privilege Walk" at school. Have you heard of this? I guess it's a thing.

It was an exercise that began with everyone in the class being asked to stand in a straight line. Then, she said, they were told to take one step forward or backward in response to statements about their personal privileges.  For instance, "If your mother went to college, step forward," "If you have ever been unable to afford a meal, step backward," etc.

The questions ranged from family, education and financial status to race and discrimination, and she said that almost all of them prompted her to take a step forward, while other classmates made their way to the back of the room. She described it as painfully uncomfortable. So much, that she admitted as the questions progressed and the gap became wider she opted to stay put regardless of her answers.

But I think feeling uncomfortable was the whole point. 

And if it was awkward for her, I can only imagine how the kids in the back of the room must have felt. Middle school is hard enough if you're wearing the wrong shoes, let alone being asked to declare under scrutiny of your peers that your parents are poor, or divorced or illegal.

I guess I'm struggling to understand how this is helpful.

When I asked Jolie how it made her feel, the first word she used was "guilty," and I imagine this to be a pretty normal reaction for any student with half a heart, who has been asked to distinguish themselves from the ranks of disadvantaged friends by walking away from them. I told her that guilt is for people who have done something wrong, and the last time I checked she hadn't personally contributed to the disparity in her community.  Jolie is no more responsible for the privileges she enjoys than the kids behind her are for the disadvantages from which they suffer.

Compassion seems like a more appropriate emotional response, or gratitude, but it's pretty hard to feel either in a room full of silent kids avoiding eye contact and wishing they were anywhere else.

But I'm certainly not looking to conjure sympathy for Jolie.

Please save that for the students in the back of the room, who have been paid a much greater disservice by this ridiculous demonstration. Aside from the obvious embarrassment of admitting what they lack, I wonder what the effects might be of directing young teenagers to identify themselves as underprivileged, and make a comparison to those who aren't.

I'm not saying the exercise isn't accurate.

Is there disparity in America? Yes. Does racism exist? Certainly.  But is it helpful to label yourself as a victim of either? I can't think of a single argument in favor of it.

Categorizing students this way is intentionally divisive

and heaven knows we have enough of that. Perhaps the worst part is that the only debriefing they received afterward was the question, "How do you feel?" before they were dismissed to collect their backpacks and head to the next class.

I'm not suggesting we outlaw privilege walks

as much as I would like to. But I would like to suggest an alternative conclusion.

How about telling the scattered students this - 

Look around you. Look where you're standing, and where everyone else is standing. Now go ahead and feel whatever it is that makes you feel. Grateful. Shortchanged. Guilty. Jealous. Embarrassed. Disappointed. Enraged.

Now, gather back into a straight line 

because here's the best thing about living in this country.  A student who ended up in the very back of the room today could someday become the President of the United States. And a student in the front of the room could wind up on welfare. And neither of those outcomes can be credited to the race, education or financial status of their parents.

Privilege only goes so far. Then merit takes over. 

If you live in the United States, take a step forward.

If you are at school today receiving a free education, step forward.

If you'll be given the right to vote when you're 18, step forward.

If you will have the freedom to someday apply for college and scholarships, step forward.

If you have a roof over your head, if you are healthy, if you have a dream for your future, any dream of your choice, and understand the amount of work it will take to make it happen, step forward,




Friday, November 2, 2018

November 1st

November 1st is my dad's birthday.  For years after he passed I would try to come up with creative ways to make the day feel happy, but always fell a little short.

And then ten years ago, on November 1st, this boy was born, and every November 1st since has been so effortlessly happy that I refuse to believe it was a coincidence.

Happy Birthday James, and Calvin James.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Priority Four

When my kids were all small I knew that reading to them was essential, but struggled to fit it into our exhausting days. One night I was feeling determined, so I gathered them up and announced that we had four priorities to accomplish before bed. We said a prayer, read scriptures, wrote in their journals, and I read aloud to them from a chapter book.

That night, without intending, the phrase "Priority Four" stuck, and years later it is still how we refer to our evening routine.  On any given night in our house you can hear someone say, "Is it time for priority four?" "Can I have ice cream after priority four?" "Eddie, you have to wear clothes to priority four," etc.

It's one of those things we say automatically, without thinking about it. Although lately, I've been thinking about it.

Because here's the thing - I'm a morning person, and one of the downsides to being a morning person is that you are not a night person. Ask me to mop the floors and finish a school project at 5:00 am and I'll do it while singing Disney songs.  But ask me to get the kids a drink of water after 8:00 pm and I'll flatly refuse while muttering to myself that I never liked you and you're ruining my life.

So when they ask me to read in the evening, when my patience and motivation have depleted, my impulse is to decline in favor of a bath, ice cream and Ross Poldark. But, hearing them request that I attend to a "priority" on the other hand, puts alternatives in their proper place.

Deepak Chopra has said that "language creates reality," and I think maybe this is what he meant. The word priority is defined as "highest in importance," and when I hear it my brain seems to respond by moving it to the front of its queue.

Priority four has evolved over the years, and can change from day to day. Sometimes we skip the journaling, or watch a YouTube clip instead of reading a book, and some nights all we can pull of is priority one or two.

But we persist in doing it, and referring to it as priority four, because if there is anything in life "higher in importance" then gathering children (and now a tween, and a teenager) with their family to learn or read or pray or talk, I have yet to discover what it is.

Gender Disparity Barbie

Last week I found myself in the Barbie aisle at Walmart, picking out a present for my son's seventh birthday. Now, before anyone pra...