Science, Gender Stereotypes…and Kids’ Clothing

Closing in on Saturn (click to enlarge)
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft closing on on Saturn. (Courtesy of NASA)

Before I tell you this story, there are few things you should know about me:

  1. I am a feminist.
  2. I have a fancy seven-year-old daughter who loves science and math.
  3. I edit children’s nonfiction for a living.
  4. I’m the pesky type of person who actually writes to my elected officials and others when I feel that something needs to be addressed.

I don’t talk about any of these very often on this blog mostly because none of them are really what the blog is about (though anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I can talk about any and all of these things endlessly).

Last week, I got an email that raised the hackles of the feminist, mother, nonfiction editor, and overall citizen in me. Surprisingly, this email was Lands End.

It featured an awesome long-sleeve t-shirt with Saturn on it. Since I’ve got an astronomy-type kid, I clicked through to look at the t-shirts. There animals, planets—all kinds of cool, scienc-y stuff on them. Then I realized that I was in the boys’ section of the website. I went to check out the girls section, just to see what they had there, and an unpleasant surprise awaited me. There was no science to be found. No planets, no sharks—nothing.

Or, rather, I shouldn’t say nothing. There were plenty of hearts, flowers, and ponies. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like hearts, flowers, and ponies as much as the next gal. But I also have a daughter who, while she likes sparkly clothes, also really likes Saturn.

I thought about buying her one of the boys’s shirts, and then I just got mad. Why can’t the girls shirts have cool science on them? What kind of message is Lands End sending by featuring science only on the boys clothing?

So, I wrote and asked them these very questions. I got a quick response from a customer service rep who said she was passing on my concerns because, she wrote, “You have a very valid point.”

Then I got the official response from the higher ups: “I’m sorry that we disappointed you with the design of our Boy’s and Girl’s Graphic Tees.” But that was about it—a couple of paragraphs repeating the same thing: that essentially there’s nothing wrong with their product—it’s just that I’m personally disappointed in it. In the same way, say that I might be disappointed that the color faded after a couple of washes or something.

To say that I was hoping for more from a company I frequently buy stuff from is an understatement. So, I wrote back and told them that. It will come as no surprise that I got no further response.

The thing is, I know this isn’t some earth-shattering problem. But it’s part of a real problem in our society—we allow these sneaky gender stereotypes to creep unnoticed into our world and they only help reinforce wrong ideas that are already there.

Girls aren’t going into the sciences at the rate we’d like them to. Could it be, in part, because we tell them in big and little ways that science isn’t for them? And don’t get me started on the muddy, ugly colors that the boys’ shirts come in and all the bad gender issues involved in that.

We can do better. We have to do better. We want our kids to live in a world where they can wear bright purple no matter what their gender. Where they can love science and still wear sparkles. We want our kids to be able to just be themselves, without the weight of societal gender expectations weighing them down.

In the meantime, I bought my daughter a great Saturn t-shirt from Zazzle in a color that she likes.  And, yeah, I got into a little bit of fight with Lands End. But it’s fight I’m willing to engage in for my kid—and for all the kids who I hope are reading the nonfiction books that I help guide into the world.

Science rocks—whether you’re a boy or a girl.