Babies and STEM
I am just going to lay this out here. If you want to discuss when we start giving children the message that STEM is for boys and not for girls, then you can’t get any earlier than the selection of newborn baby clothes. Cars? Robots? Space Ships? Dinosaurs? For boys! How more clear can you get? (Editor’s note: As a currently preggers person, I have to say that it could be with decorating for the incipient baby since most people find out what sex their baby is before it’s born. So I win? Or we all lose, maybe… Definitely I win for using ‘incipient.’)
The complaint that kids’ clothing is drowned in gender messages is a well-trod progressive parent’s rant. Girl’s shirts pronounce them little cuties and princesses while boy’s shirts are covered with super heroes and sports imagery. If you are looking for something more egalitarian, you will need to look to the more expensive baby clothing lines. However, first, most babies will not be wearing those clothes, and, second, I am just not interested in a paying $30 for a onesie that my baby will outgrow in three months.
I strongly suspect that because baby’s bodies are so free of outward expressions of gender, and because we view gender as so primary to a person’s identity, that there is a correspondingly strong drive to make sure a baby’s biological sex is obvious through what the baby wears. (Why, oh why, would I want to pin a tiny functionless bow in my daughter’s wisps of hair for her to grab and pull?) Baby clothes are where you can clearly see society’s free association of what goes with what gender. And in the break down of what goes with whom, just about all the imagery that might represent excitement about building, designing, and discovery, e.g. STEM fields, is found in the boy’s aisle. That is, unless, you are thinking about working with wildlife, because giraffes, elephants, ducks, and frogs are firmly in the “gender neutral” yellow/green aisle.
This is something my wife and I became aware of in a practical way as we anticipated the birth of our daughter Maya. In her first few years of life, our daughter will be dressed in outfits with cherries, robots, owls, giraffes, frogs, cars, cupcakes, and dinosaurs, and in the colors blue, pink, purple, yellow, green, and all the rest of the rainbow. We want all these things and colors to be in her world (Editor’s note: DRESS THE BABIES IN ALL THE THINGS!!!). But, because we are proud geeks, we really love clothes with robots. Slap a goofy little robot on a shirt, and these suckers will buy it. But, almost without exception, clothes with robots are found in the “boy” section and are colored blue. Specifically they are colored in the shades of blue that are coded to be the “boy” shades. As a case in point, when we dress our daughter in a featureless outfit of that shade of blue, we are often asked how old our little “guy” is. We did find one exception to this robot rule of color. A few years ago, we gasped with excitement when we found a roll of fabric at a craft store with pink and purple robots. It was notable for how unusual it was. (Editor’s note: My people are the people who gasp with excitement at diversely-hued robots.)
So if you want to know when precisely we start giving boys and girls the message that the STEM field is masculine, look to the baby clothing aisle. The brilliant thing about baby clothes is that they are never subtle. (That is, unless they are the expensive ones).