I can smell the chemicals

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about why girls and women are underrepresented in science subjects at school and university, and (as a result) in scientific and technological careers. (Yes, I know this sounds a bit serious; bear with me, we’ll get to mocking the stupid pink stuff in a minute.) It seems fairly clear that part of the problem is the conflict between the media image of science and the cultural expectations of girls: for lots of socio-cultural reasons that I’m not going to go into (because I want to get to the funny stuff, and other people have done the serious stuff better) science is perceived as being “for boys”: it’s seen as being too hard, or too nerdy, or too unsexy for girls. In an attempt to counter this problem, lots of of laudable initiatives have been developed to try to educate and inspire girls and women to get involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) studies and careers: from L’Oréal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science programme to STEMGirls (where girls can ask questions of real women who are working in science) to WISE (Women Into Science, Engineering and Construction) to… oh, you get the picture. However, it’s clear that the problem starts quite young… so wouldn’t it be great if there were more science-related toys for kids pitched in a way that both boys and girls could relate to?

Screenshot of Wild Science Boys' Science Kits, including Joke Soap, Weird Slime Lab, etc

Honey, I blue up the kids

Oh. But wait! It’s OK! There’s a “Girls’ Science Kits” section too!

Screenshot of Wild Science Girls' Science Kits, including Bath Bomb Factory, Beauty Salon, etc.

Pink 'Stinks'

Sigh. Yes, nearly every one of the science kits “for girls” relates to beauty products. Boys get “Hyperlauncher”, “Joke Soap”, “Perils of the Deep”, “Spooky Ice Planet”, “Weird Slime Lab”, and “Physics and Chemistry”; girls get “Amazing Crystal Lagoon”, “Aroma Art”, “Bath Bomb Factory”, “Beautiful Blob Slime”, “Beauty Salon”, “Beauty Spa Lab”, “Lip Balm Lab”, “Luxury Soap Lab”, “Magical Crystal Oasis”, “Mystic (Krazy) Crystals”, “Perfect Perfume Lab”, “Perfumed Designer” and “Snow Flake Factory”. The ones that aren’t about beauty are “magical” or “mystic”, which is surely the antithesis of science!

I do sort of see what they’re doing, but the problem is by trying to make science “girly” they’re taking all the science out of it (OK, to be fair, I’m guessing “Joke Soap” isn’t exactly going to get the Royal Society seal of approval either) and reinforcing the message that girls are only allowed to like stuff if it’s all about pinkness and pampering. (What happens when they realise that not all chemistry involves covering everything in potassium permanganate?) The fact that the science kit which is actually called “Physics & Chemistry” only appears in the boys’ section is just insulting. It’s enough to make Marie Curie turn in her grave.

While we’re on the subject, apparently even geography is too difficult for girls unless everything’s pink:

Screenshot of pink globe on WHSmith site

If all the world were glitter, and all the seas were pink

“Learn about the world and have a beautiful object for your space. This illuminated pink globe details major cities and comes in a glittered pink stand.”

I see what’s happened here, too; look at all the other globes at the bottom (“Illuminated globes bestsellers”): they’re blue, therefore they must be for boys, therefore we’ve got to provide a pink alternative for girls. THE BLUE REPRESENTS WATER. The globe looks blue because IT’S ABOUT TWO-THIRDS WATER, and WATER IS NOT PINK. The last time the world map was largely pink is probably not a time we want to look back to nostalgically… any more than we want to get all wistful for the days when the closest girls got to “science” was domestic science (cookery) or training as beauticians.

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7 thoughts on “I can smell the chemicals

  1. We need these old stereotypes to DIE. Science is not only for girls AND boys, it’s for everyone on the whole Earth who cares to understand it. The whole girl/pink think has to die. My daughter is 7, and I’ve taken it on myself to educate her about science. And guess what, she loves it. She’s watching a video on the periodic table of the elements right now. Her choice, not mine. And there’s no pink version of it for girls.

  2. The pink globe is kind of crazy. Would suit the sort of person who dyes her cats pink. I think the boys’ science versus girls’ science thing might be more damaging. Why could they not do as Lego did when I was small and depict girls and buys playing together on a basis of equality and mutual respect on the packaging? I can only assume their marketing indicated that divorced parents, aunts and uncles, etc., feel panic as they have to buy gifts for children they only see at christmas and birthdays and need guidance to choices that will suit the stereotypical children marketing people imagine that customers will imagine.

    • divorced parents, aunts and uncles, etc., feel panic as they have to buy gifts for children they only see at christmas and birthdays

      I do think that’s part of it — and it’s a vicious circle, the more people are told “These are for girls, these are for boys, DON’T GET IT WRONG” the more they worry that they might accidentally buy the “wrong” thing (even for their own children, not just estranged/distant relatives).

      Of course the escalation of the obligation to buy presents for everybody is a problem in itself (gender aside). This is what book tokens are for, people!

      I’m amused that you use Lego as an example of egalitarian marketing though — have you seen the latest from them? Read it and weep…

      • In recent years I have consistently bought my goddaughter (who is now a teen) amazon gift vouchers. She likes them because she can choose precisely what she buys and they seem to make more welcome gifts than if I tried to second-guess her precise preference and liaise with others to make sure no-one else had bought such a thing.

        Unless you really know what you are doing, this is often the kindest thing to do.

  3. Ah yes, the famous (in our house) pink globe fiasco. R used it as an example when explaining to his parents why we didn’t want pink things for little A, thank you very much; or at least only as a part of a healthy balanced intake.

  4. Girl chemicals and boy chemicals. Good grief! I am insulated from all this not being a parent. When I was a kid most of my chemistry was done with household reagents (or things you could sneakily make from them) anyway.

    Clearly some chemicals are inherently female. More research needed.

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