In case you were wondering if there are pervasive social norms underpinning the notion that women are less inclined towards certain intellectual pursuits than their male counterparts, please look no further than the recent row over a t-shirt at The Children’s Place. Apparently someone, somewhere thought it would be cute for little girls to suggest via sartorial self-expression that they love dancing! And music! And shopping! But not math because “nobody’s perfect.” And while many little girls do, in fact, love to dance and listen to music, most of them do not have wallets. Their parents do. And the parents have spoken. The shirt has been pulled from shelves.
Many people, particularly those who are not parents and subsequently have not recently perused the aisles of the local Children’s Place, could easily have missed the miniature scandal. And although there has been a formidable social media backlash, the incident is easy to dismiss as a one-off, a rare occasion where marketing has gone too far. After all, most items marketed to children are based on what will sell itself, and what sells is often based on long-ago constructed gender norms. Girls like pink. Boys like blue. Dolls, glitter, dancing. Cars, trucks, camouflage. Often easily digested and inoffensive, the carefully marketed goods fly off the shelves more often than not with no attention paid to the clear division in socially acceptable gender norms. Consumption and ornamentation are allotted to the girls. Agency and aggression to the boys. Can you imagine a boys’ shirt that said, in fairly plain terms, “I like to dance and I hate math!!!”? No? Exactly.
To illustrate just how pervasive this skill-oriented concept of gender is, consider the recent battle of Larry Summers vs. Janet Yellen for future chairman of the Federal Reserve. Dr. Summers, former president of Harvard University, had once allegedly suggested in a lecture that women might be biologically predisposed to lower aptitude in math and science at the high school level. Um… what? The reality is that conceptualizing the contest between two candidates for an important position primarily in terms of gender is dangerous. In doing so we are detracting from the real issues at hand. The solution is not to ignore the gender issue, as it is an immensely important hurdle in our society. The goal should be to someday get past it.
The fact of the matter is that a short-lived t-shirt is not a big deal. Young girls will continue for years to be told, by methods both bold and subtle, that their place is to ornament society in bright pink. However, they will continue to attend institutions of higher education in greater numbers than men. They will continue to work towards closing the wage gap. And they will continue to make strides that their mothers and grandmothers had never imagined. The big deal is the fact that it reflects a larger widely-held view that math, science, and other “hard” subjects are somehow more naturally meant for boys. And this is not just bad for our girls. Because in the same way that girls will be discouraged from pursuing male-dominated fields, young boys will be encouraged to promote these norms. And they will, by default, exclude themselves from that which is deemed feminine.
In suggesting that one gender is by nature predisposed to certain tangible, useful skill sets, our society continues to limit all individuals from reaching their true potential. Who says you can’t love both math and glitter? I know I sure do.