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Nature or Nurture? Advertising, Toys, Sexist Stereotypes, and Destiny

Maxine NeuhauserIn the midst of the holiday buying season, let’s take a moment to reflect on the influence of advertising on our gift-buying choices and the potential impact that those choices have on our children. We are well versed in the power of advertising in enforcing stereotypes in our culture and on ourselves. Last month, NPR aired a segment that offered striking evidence of how much that might matter.

The NPR segment reported on how advertising in the early days of personal computers, which were marketed by companies such as Radio Shack and Commodore, effectively shut the door on girls entering computer science by targeting the new product as a toy for boys, much like erector sets.  Pitching personal computers to boys gave them a significant head start in learning computing and coding. Girls, on the other hand, did not grow up coding because personal computers were not marketed to them. As a result, by the time that boys entered college, those considering a computer science major already had a significant base of knowledge.   The boys’ baseline then came to be the standard expected by professors.  Girls who had a similar interest in computer science entered college with a knowledge base far behind that of boys; as a result, most girls abandoned computer science for other degrees before really even getting started. From there, the male computer nerd/genius stereotype took off and took hold. This is despite the fact that women led the field until 1984. 

Much of society continues to perpetuate these harmful sexist stereotypes. Just last year, Random House published Barbie, I Can Be a Computer Engineer, targeted to three- to seven-year-old girls. As reported by Taylor Lorenz in the Business Insider, Barbie “is portrayed as an inept programmer who inadvertently plagues her friend’s computer with a virus and can’t fix a bug without help from a man.”  According to one Amazon review quoted in the article:

Barbie starts out at breakfast stating that she’s designing a game but when questioned by her sister Skipper, she admits, “I’m only creating the design idea, I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.” Literally six sentences into the story, and already Barbie can NOT do it.

Although the book has been discontinued and now appears to be a collector’s item ($199.99 sold as a package with I Can Be an Actress), it is out there—along with the attitudes, both society’s and our own.

As reported earlier this year in an article by Elizabeth Weingarten, “How to Get Girls to Choose, and Stick with, STEM Careers: A Future Tense Event Recap,” published on Slate.com, Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College, offered this formula: “Show them that it is fun (and lucrative, and flexible), strip away the intimidation factor (by gently telling know-it-all, geeky boys in class to pipe down), and help them see that they’re smart enough to do it.”

I’ll go for that.