The cult of cute and its impact on girls in STEM
We’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave, says Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. Saujani has taken up the charge to socialize young girls to take risks and learn to program — two skills they need to move society forward. To truly innovate, we cannot leave behind half of our population, she says. “I need each of you to tell every young woman you know to be comfortable with imperfection.”
Her TED talk here
It’s that last line that got me – ‘tell every young woman to be comfortable with imperfection’ that doesn’t sit well with me. By the time they are young women its too late and it also conflicts with the messages they have received from birth – thou shalt be cute above all else.
It’s right up there with a panel discussion I went to last weekend about values & ethics in Science where one of the speakers used her ‘final two cents’ to suddenly protest that all the young women in the room should take up STEM. We were obviously in the room as we are in STEM fields or into it already
I couldn’t hold back and tweeted:
The answer is not abt pushing girls down the STEM track, fundamental shifts in industry & edu systems needed alongside. #WSFBrisbane
— kimberly baars (@MissesArtech) March 12, 2016
But I think its more than just industry and education that need to rethink how they are shaping things. Yes the impact is seen in these spheres but we all know it starts much earlier than this. Learned helplessness, validated shyness and the need to be perfect above all else is thrust at girls from a young age. Cuteness is celebrated and praised and therefore reinforced.
A google image search (for free to use images) has these two as the top search results: Small, helpless baby animals
By playing into the cute label girls participate in a narrative that forgoes an equal playing field early on. If we want our girls to be strong, brave and courageous we need to start by calling them that and throw away the adjective ‘cute’.
Kids constantly absorb their environment so every time an adult says to a young girl ‘you look lovely today’ or ‘that dress makes you look so pretty’ it reinforces the idea that looking pretty aka cute is the only thing that matters.
As teachers we see learned helpless play out in the classroom often, students that would rather pass up the opportunity to try and possibly fail for the tried and true puppy dog eyes that they pull at home or out in the world that gets them an extra scoop of ice cream or thing they wanted. Yes I acknowledge that boys are just as good at playing this as girls but for many girls this is their default setting.
“I liked Hard Tech in Year 10 but I didn’t want to keep taking it because my ears stick out and you have to tie your hair up”
In the classroom there are a myriad of factors playing out at any given time and learning is a moving shifting target for each individual. As I’ve mentioned before (in this post) we need to be designing learning experiences for all. We also need to be aware and help to kick the word ‘cute’ from the social vernacular.
I wonder if this need to look cute and therefore be perfect is what is standing in the way for girls trying – where failure is seen as messy and the opposite of looking/being cute – in STEM areas. In most STEM fields failure while learning is actually physically messy also, its hands on dirty work. Walk into a makerspace or tech room or fab lab (or whatever latest ‘it’ work they’ve been given) and one sure fire thing you will find is mess.
When I was doing my practicums I would swap between Tech workshops and Art classrooms – the gender divide was excruciatingly evident – but what struck me one day was comments from a group of Year 12 girls. I came in, well rushed in from the other side of the school, and happened to still be slightly covered in sawdust. The class kicked off and as I walked around a small group commented on the sawdust still clinging to my skirt – ‘the workshop is so yucky’, ‘you always see the boys walk into English and they’re such a mess from Tech’ and then the real kicker, ‘I liked Hard Tech in Year 10 I didn’t want to keep taking it because my ears stick out and you have to tie your hair up’.
This wee gem popped up on my twitter notifications (Thanks Tim Kong @timoslimo):
So this was part of an ad campaign for the Australian Governments National Innovation and Science agenda a push to promote innovation through STEM. However the ad agency rather than approaching someone in the STEM fields to front the campaign decided to instead use stock imagery. When I looked into the tag it read: woman soldering beautiful. AKA cute.
The campaign received rather a backlash from the STEM & Maker communities as the photo in question sees the ‘beautiful’ woman holding a soldering iron where one can not hold a soldering iron – the hot burning part. Not only that but she is soldering on the component side not the back where the soldered joins are.
All three stock photography images have the tags woman, soldering, beautiful.
All three are soldering the wrong side of a circuit board and all three would see themselves with serious burns to their fingers. But it seems thats ok because even with safety goggles on they still look cute.