This advertisement, a recent social media hit, implies that the reason women account for a relatively small share of science and engineer majors is societal messages, such as those that tell girls their looks are more important than their brains. It shows a young girl growing from toddler to teenager while the viewer hears her parents calling her “pretty girl,” telling her not to mess up her dress, and to hand the power tools over to her brother.
In a way, it’s a harmless ad, reminding parents that the messages they send their daughters about what makes her valuable impacts girls’ self-esteem and how they will focus their energies. But it is also terribly misleading, both in where the most damaging messages come from and the reasons why women are less likely than men to pursue engineering and science in college and as a career.
First, parents occasionally calling their daughter “pretty” hardly drives girls to worry about their looks. In fact, it seems perfectly appropriate—necessary, even—for parents to tell their child they thinks she is beautiful. Of course, these cannot be the only complements a little girl hears. Parents need to praise her kindness, work ethic, imagination, and sense of humor. This is pretty obvious stuff.
The looks obsession isn’t driven by parents lovingly referring to a daughter as “my pretty girl,” but the bombardment of messages from society—from Hollywood, fashion designers, and celebrity culture—that make looks seem all-important, and, even worse, make sex appeal paramount. Given that cultural obsession, you can guarantee girls will wonder and worry if they are pretty enough. This makes it important that a parent provides some basic reassurance in this area, and, in the process, parents can emphasize that their daughter looks nice in her jeans and sweater, rather than in a mid-drift.
Looks are only part of the message in this ad, the other being that we need to allow our daughter the time to explore, get messy, and take some risks, just like we expect from our sons. That’s true, of course, though it is hard to imagine that such a blindingly obvious fact requires a schmaltzy commercial in this age of equality and grrrrrl power.
Academic Intervention: Necessary?
More troubling, the ads highlights two findings from a National Science Foundation poll that the viewer is invited to assume are the outcome of these messages: 66 percent of fourth-grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18 percent of all college engineering majors are female. Such statistics are also regularly trotted out when government and feminist groups seek to justify more intervention in academia to correct the intractable problem that, because of societal sexism, there simply aren’t enough women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines.
Yet statistics like this tell us absolutely nothing about why men and women end up choosing the majors and careers that they do.
First, as the mother of three girls, one of whom will enter fourth grade this fall, I can tell you that younger kids tend to report liking just about every subject in school. Science class is often particularly appealing, because it’s much more hands-on and usually involves some interesting projects, unlike spelling, grammar, and math, which revolve around drilling and memorization. My daughter’s third-grade science course focused on the solar system, the earth’s crust, and then animals and insects. She loved it, consistently calls science her favorite class, and will often respond that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up, so she can spend her time “inventing and making stuff.”
Does this mean I have a budding scientist or future engineer? That would be wonderful, of course, and part of my job as a parent to encourage such interests, so we’ve invested in all the kids’ science kits, books, and microscopes. But I am also aware that her interests may change as science and engineering become more technical and English and other disciplines become more appealing. If she ultimately moves away from science and math, that doesn’t necessarily mean something has gone wrong.
Girls Have Other Options
There has been a great deal of hard research into why men and women end up focusing on different subject and career areas. For example, research shows that women who tend to have a high aptitude for math and science are also high-aptitude in other areas, while men with high aptitudes in math and science have fewer other academic strengths. This means that promising female engineers have other options, so many act on other preferences and considerations, while potential male engineers have fewer alternatives. Women also express greater preferences for careers that put them in direct touch with people and aren’t as satisfied with what can be the more isolated environment of the lab. You can read more about such factors and research in this paper, or in this book edited by the American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers.
Of course, we want our daughters to know that all options are open to them and to have female role models in areas like math and science. We want our society to send messages so that girls recognize their true value isn’t their appearance. Our society should mentor girls and young women to try to encourage a continuing love of science and math.
Yet we shouldn’t assume success requires that women and men to be equally interested in all subject matters, and to think that differences in outcomes are driven by sexism. Particularly when government gets involved, the focus can become making the numbers add up, which means that part of the solution can become discouraging boys, rather than encouraging girls, and cajoling girls into arenas that may not ultimately be their best fit.
So take from this ad that society needs to consider the messages we send to our daughters (and sons, for that matter), but let’s make one of the messages we push be this: Equality of opportunity, rather than equal outcomes, is the true mark of a fair society.
Carrie Lukas is the managing director at Independent Women’s Forum and co-author of Liberty Is No War on Women.