A Harmful Fad
American society is seeing a resurgence of a movement to encourage females to take on roles they haven't historically had. This effort to see more female scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, leaders, etc. has been largely wonderful. But unchecked, it has also recently led to some passively-accepted radical ideas about femininity and equality, with resources being wasted on related initiatives that are ultimately taking away from the good that could otherwise be accomplished.
The United States of America -- or at least the popular culture and media -- has bought into the idea that women not making up half of all engineers and executives is a problem. In a 2012 article about the dearth of women in engineering, PBS NewsHour interviewed University of Colorado Engineering Professor Angela Bielefeldt stated that "only 10 to 12" of her freshmen civil engineering class of 60 to 80 students were women.
"It's really pathetic," she told NewsHour.
While such articles are being written, and while such initiatives such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media -- busy pointing out "imbalances in the number of women shown working versus men shown working in films and TV" -- are promoted throughout the country, the American public has gone along for the ride and taken for granted that these disparities are indeed "pathetic".
No one seems to have ever stopped to ask, "Wait, why is it 'pathetic' that there are fewer female engineers?" or countered with, "Why isn't it 'pathetic' then that less than 20 percent of elementary and middle school teachers are men -- that an insignificant two percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers are male?"
One could also retort by noting these statistics from the National Science Foundation: “In 2009... Women constituted the majority of graduate students in psychology (76%), medical/other life sciences (76%), biological sciences (57%), and social sciences (54%), and were close to half of graduate students in agricultural sciences (49%) and earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences (46%)."
The nation's women have clearly stepped forward to fulfill their professional ambitions in all of these formerly-male dominated fields. This is good news.
Nonetheless, women continue to make up smaller minorities in the fields of math, engineering, and computers. So the movement continues. And by ignoring the concerns of the shoe being on the other foot -- men being unrepresented -- and by neglecting to recognize that women make up healthy majorities in many scientific fields, this movement now reveals itself no longer as a promotion of equality, but something on the order of a fad.
We all acknowledge that there are differences in physiology, appearance, and yes, interests and capabilities between the typical man and woman. We accept that they have different body parts, that men are typically taller and that women have rounder hips, that women are more likely to read 50 Shades of Grey and that men are more likely to be police officers. In these areas, people in the U.S. are reasonable. There is no taboo with these facts, so truth can be objectively observed.
This is why in the case of men and education, we don't see near the amount of stories or nonprofit organizations or mentions on Google's homepage in response to the discrepancy. Because here we accept the differences in feminine/masculine biology. It's more than skin deep. It's more than which books and movies men and women tend to enjoy.
It's that, overall, the two genders embody unique neurologies lending to each gender excelling at unique tasks. In fact, we can actually appreciate such disparity as it enables a richer society when we leverage each gender's strengths and interests.
It is much more complicated than "boys this/girls that". The truth parses out masculinity and femininity from gender, but this doesn't dissuade from the truth, or our acceptance, that women tend to enjoy working with small children more than men tend to.
Of course there is also the darker side to disparity: a consequence of boxing men and women into limited roles for work and family. Such beliefs and traditions have prevented individuals from spreading their wings and sharing with the world their talents and passions whether a female firefighter or a male hairdresser. America's struggle has been in determining which disparities are good, which are not, and in not letting the pendulum swing too far in response to previous social ills.
This struggle shows itself today as we're popularly unable to accept this other truth in male/female biological difference: males tend to enjoying building things more than females. According to a paper published by David Reilly & David L. Neumann in the journal Sex Roles:
"...reviews find no evidence of gender differences in general intelligence (Halpern and Lamay 2000; Neisser et al. 1996). However, researchers have frequently observed gender differences in more specific components of cognitive ability (Boyle et al. 2010a, b; Neumann et al. 2007, 2010). The largest and most consistent gender differences are found in spatial ability (Halpern 2011; Kimura 2000; Maccoby and Jacklin 1974), where reviews find effect sizes ranging from medium to large (Linn and Petersen 1985; Voyer et al. 1995). Gender differences in spatial ability are also found cross-culturally in large international studies with young-adult samples (Peters et al. 2006; Silverman et al. 2007)."
American media and pop culture leaders today don't want to admit this part of the gender divide. The fad doesn't allow such truth to surface. Thus, if it's not biological, there must be a problem. And if there's a problem, there must be a culprit. Sexism? Traditionalism? Girl's self-esteem? There must be something!
Now we have GoldieBlox, http://www.goldieblox.com/ a company creating pink building blocks because this must be the reason little girls tend not to build things like their little male friends. And we have Facebook COO, and outspoken female-empowerment crusader, Sheryl Sandberg's latest "Ban Bossy" campaign, a call to stop using the word "bossy" because girls being called as such is part of the reason why fewer women are leaders today.
What Ban Bossy evidences is that which happens to a movement when its inertia takes it into the absurd.
Does anyone really believe that if a 4th grade girl wants to start a program to provide blankets for the homeless that her classmates are going to call her out as "bossy"? I don't think the celebrity endorsers behind Ban Bossy even believe this. Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé Knowles, etc. simply did what most Americans do when they hear "female empowerment." They jumped on board Sandberg's campaign with no thought about the actual claim being made. They didn't think, because this movement to see females become leaders and STEM participants has drifted into the realm beyond reason.
Another sign that this movement has ventured into unreasonableness is that its greatest enemy -- and so that which is taboo -- is the truth. To publicly utter the statement, "Maybe boys are just typically better at building things" would spur unsightly looks in your direction. Not just because you're wrong -- in which case people could simply correct you -- but because you challenge the hype they've bought into.
In 2006, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers was forced to resign after making a speech about disparities in male/female representation in certain scientific fields. His social sin was that he postulated that one of the reasons for the disparity (in addition to admitting other factors such as discrimination) was biological. He had to resign even though a strong majority of the Harvard student body wanted him to stay. Even Sheryl Sandberg, ironically, defended his statements. Nonetheless, faculty offered a vote of no confidence.
American media outlets and figures like Sandberg are pushing a movement that promotes a warped version of equality and a warped sense of femininity. We aren't going to see an equal number of women in engineering just like we aren't going to see an equal number of male aestheticians.
Perhaps most problematic, from the federal government to Google, focus and investment of time and cash into these initiatives means diverting resources from actual problems. Having taught in inner-city schools across Minneapolis, I've seen suffering in the eyes of kids who grow up in terrible situations. #Banbossy? How about we #banabuse of these kids by their parents? The little girls in these classrooms don't need encouragement to go into science. They need the chance to live a violence-free life.
When we believe in a phantom problems, we don't pay attention to the real ones.