My husband Sean had to work this past weekend, and at one point I stopped by his office with the kids. Five-year-old Sally was immediately attracted to the chalkboard, and began attempting to copy the numbers and figures already on the board (Sean is in a STEM field). After a few minutes, one of Sean’s colleagues stopped by. Sean introduced us, and his colleague turned to Sally.
“How old are you?” he asked genially.
“Five,” she responded.
“What’s your favorite princess?” he asked.
Seriously? That’s the first question he could think to ask a five-year-old girl? She was drawing equations on the chalkboard for goodness sake. Was asking what she wasworking on so hard? Or asking her what grade she’s in, or her favorite subject at school? Or what books she’s been reading? Or what she likes to do? What, I wonder, would he have asked her if she’d been a boy? Certainly not her favorite princess.
Sally didn’t skip a beat.
“Actually, I don’t have a favorite princess,” she replied.
Yes, not every five-year-old has a favorite princess. I know, right? What a novelty! Sally does enjoy princesses, but she has other things on her mind at the moment. Frustrated but trying not to show it, I explained that Sally is more into science. Sally became immediately excited, and spent the next few minutes explaining some of her favorite scientific concepts, using the chalkboard to illustrate. Sean’s colleague quickly lost interest and drifted away before he finished.
After he’d left, I went back and forth about whether I should say anything. I was upset, yes, but more than that I was just tired. I look at my little girl, oblivious for the moment to the sexism she is already facing, and I think about how much of this she’ll face as she grows. I wonder, sometimes, whether the opposition she’ll face will end up killing her current interest in science.
As we were getting ready to leave, I ran into Sean’s colleague in the hall. I decided I would say something after all.
“You know, one of the reasons we see a gender disparity in the maths and sciences is that people assume girls will fit into a preconceived stereotype,” I told him. “And princesses are part of that.”
“Oh, I know all that,” he said. “It’s just that I have two nieces, and they’re really into that new Frozen princess.”
“All I’m saying is that next time you meet another little girl, you might want to lead by asking her about her favorite subject in school, or what books she’s been reading recently, rather than jumping straight to princesses,” I went on. “I mean, she was drawing numbers on the chalkboard. You could have asked her about that.”
And I left it at that.
I suspect his logic went something like this: “My nieces really like princesses, and they’re little girls, and this is a little girl, so she must like princesses too.” The problem is that little girls are also individuals. They don’t all like the same things. Many little girls are into princesses, yes, and that’s fine. But but others prefer legos, or art, or My Little Ponies—or science. I want a world where girls are treated as individuals first, a world where girls are allowed to fill in the blanks in their own stories. Is it so hard to ask a girl her interests instead of assuming them for her?
My son Bobby is two, and I’m interested to hear what people say to him as he grows so that I can compare. What do people lead off with with five-year-old boys? It will be gendered as well, I’m sure, and that’s the problem—this is part of the process of socializing children into specific gender roles. Girls are assumed to like sweet sparkly pretty girly things and boys are assumed to like strong manly messy boy things. And then we do studies on psychological differences between men and women or differences in occupational choice as though these things are wholly natural rather than largely the product of relentless cultural shaping during childhood.
We need to stop seeing children first through the lens of gender (i.e. superimposing gender roles we imagine are natural or universal on them) and instead start seeing them first as individuals. The next time you meet a little girl—or a little boy—you might try leading with “What do you like to do when you get out of school?” or “Have you read any good books or seen any good movies lately?”
You may find they have more to tell you than you thought.