The Science of Sexism

Like many others, I was riveted by the very classy Women’s World Cup Soccer Finals. And, like millions of us, I rejoiced in the victory of these amazing women athletes and celebrated the incredible distance women have traveled in my lifetime. When I was in high school, soccer did not exist. Girls who played basketball were allowed only two dribbles before passing and could only play half the court—presumably due to their delicate constitutions. Then only girls played basketball; women did not. Today that seems to me to be such a far distant lifetime that I can’t imagine having been there.

The day after the triumphant soccer victory, forty-three percent of the runners at the Chronicle Marathon in San Francisco were women. A marathon is more than 26 miles! There can be little doubt that girls and women have made remarkable strides in athletics. But how are we doing in other areas? And how are the boys and men doing?

All in all not too badly, I think. Men are now nurses and women are dentists; men are telephone operators, women trim trees. Social change takes time. And in the arts, life has always been free to those who seize the moment.

The trick, for those of us who would offer the whole world to all kids of either gender, is to be vigilant. To make sure that the subtle expectations we have for our children don’t shut down avenues of possibility that could open up the universe.

At YSI summer camps this year thirty-nine percent of the participants are female but in kindergarten and first grade forty-two percent are girls. Do girls lose interest in science as they grow older, or is something else going on here? Do we tease toddlers into thinking bugs are fun and dancing with abandoned is one of life’s pleasures only to later let boys know dancing is for girls and girls know bugs are scary things to shriek at? If Curious Chemistry were called Kitchen Chemistry, would boys no longer outnumber girls two to one? And why, oh why, does the very popular Physics camp have boys outnumbering girls almost six to one?

To be sure we don’t have all the genetic answers either. Forces of many millennia have led to physical differences between men and women. We all recognize that generally women’s pelvises are wider for carrying children, men’s muscles are larger for providing food and shelter. Surely these are only greater manifestations of more elusive genetic differences which have yet to be completely cataloged.

But given what we do know, we have a chance to offer much to our kids, both boys and girls. We can offer them possibilities we were never permitted to consider.

Those women of the Rose Bowl–twenty-something, thirty-something, moms, friends, heroes–offered the world to all of us. They let us know that anything is possible. Do we have the courage to offer that to our children?