Turns out it’s hard to buy a boy a pink shirt

Quite a while back, I wrote about the importance of pink shirts.  Actually, that post is about how I don’t want “gender equality” to mean “girls can be like boys, but not vice versa.”  Pink shirts for boys are just one of the more obvious examples; still, it became important to me that Little Boy have one.  He’s too young to care about his wardrobe—why not offer him a wide selection?

It should’ve been so easy.  Walk into store.  Buy pink shirt.  Dress baby.  But it turned out to be a lot harder than that.

In the store, I got whacked in the face with my own ingrained gender biases.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy my Little Boy a ruffly purple shirt or a sweater with pink sparkles.  I don’t like that, I thought.  And it’s true, I don’t tend to wear sparkly ruffly things myself.  But if my child were a girl, would I have bought it?  How much was my conception of “boy” getting in the way of me purchasing some cute stuff for my kid?

It wasn’t entirely my fault.  A plain ol’ pink T-shirt, it turns out, is a surprisingly rare commodity.  The toddler boys’ section of the department store is filled with staples—T-shirts, jeans, thermals—in a good set of basic colors.  Toddler girls, on the other hand, get to choose from the aforementioned sparkly ruffly things.  “Basics” don’t seem to be a part of girls’ clothing.

After putting it off for far too long, I ordered a couple of shirts for Little Boy from Primary.com, a website promising basic children’s clothing in a variety of colors.  I still had to order from the “girls” section of the website—as if 18-month-old children didn’t all have the same body type!  And the girls’ clothes, of course, run small, so we had to order a size up.

On Monday, Little Boy wore one of his new shirts, in a pleasant lavender, to daycare.  The other new shirt is a jewel-toned pink.  They’re not the most outrageous colors in his dresser drawer; that honor belongs to the blinding plaids given by a well-meaning relative.  Nevertheless, I found myself rather unreasonably nervous.  Would anyone notice?  Would anyone care?

If anyone did notice, they didn’t care.

Let’s talk about sexual harassment in academia

[Content note: In addition to the potentially triggering nature of the topic at hand, I’m probably going to curse a lot.]

It’s been in my news feed again.  Two cases of sexual harassment by professors—one recently at Caltech, another a decade ago in Arizona—came out in the same week.  Both were in the same field—astronomy—that was shaken last fall by the news that a prominent professor at UC Berkeley had been harassing women for years.  All of this, of course, spawned a flurry of pieces about “the sexual harassment problem in astronomy,” as though it’s something that’s contained to one distasteful little community that hasn’t caught up with the 21st century.

So let’s get one thing out of the way before we go any further:

Sexual harassment isn’t limited to any one field.  It isn’t just astronomy.  It’s anthropology.  It’s physics.  It’s philosophy.  It’s everywhere.  This happens all the time, people.  All the time.

It happens outside the academic world too, of course, because people suck and society isn’t nearly as enlightened as it likes to think.  But the way careers are structured in academia makes those lower on the hierarchy particularly susceptible: students and postdocs are typically supervised by a single advisor, and their careers depend on that advisor’s good word and networking connections.  While it may be hard to quit a regular job and find a new one when your boss is an asshole, it’s nigh on impossible to do so in academia.

One more preliminary note:

People of any gender can harass people of any gender.  However, I’m going to use pronouns that assume the harasser is male and the harassed is female.  Why?  Because that’s what all the recent examples have been.  And because loads and loads and loads of studies have shown that that’s the most common scenario.  And because the societal response to sexual harassment stories tends to be very gender-biased.

That response is one of the things I want to talk about, actually.  This next point is addressed to men in general, and particularly to men who want to not be assholes:

Dudes, you have to stop getting defensive.  (Or, as Hope Jahren puts it, calm the fuck down.)  When a story comes out about a male professor sexually harassing a bunch of students, that’s not an attack on you.  If you take it like it’s an attack on you, what you’re actually saying is that you would prefer to continue telling sexist jokes and hitting on your underlings and generally not having your power threatened in any way.  When you say, “Enough of talking about this, let’s get back to research,” what you’re really saying is that you’re an asshole.

“But I’m not an asshole!” you might say.  “I’m just worried that I’m going to say something that gets taken the wrong way!”

No.

Are you sticking your hand up grad students’ skirts?

Are you holding meetings at strip clubs?

Do you tell your underlings they would teach better without underwear?

(All of the above are real examples from the three recent cases in astronomy.)

It’s not about innocent actions being misinterpreted.

We all know that there are a fair number of people in academia who are socially awkward, and that people sometimes unintentionally say things that can be taken the wrong way.  New flash: women can be awkward and nerdy too!  We get it!  When we talk about ending sexual harassment, we don’t mean kicking you out because you complimented us on our shirt that one time.  If you read the cases linked above, these are all people who persisted in creepy, manipulative, intentional behavior for years.  They were all told—often multiple times—that their behavior was inappropriate.  They were also all found, after full investigations by their universities, to have violated campus policies.  They got due process.  They’re already swimming in the benefit of the doubt.  Nobody owes them any more.

Another thing that seems to get men all up in arms is the belief that anti-harassment policies will cramp their dating style.  Here’s a hint, dudes: if your dating strategy constitutes sexual harassment, you are doing it wrong.  I can speak from experience on this—I managed to date and marry someone in my field without anyone being creepy or anyone getting harassed.  I know quite a few grad students who’ve dated other grad students, in their own departments and elsewhere.  And heck, I think half the faculty in my department are married to each other.  So go ahead, have relationships, fall in love.  Just don’t be a fucking jerk about it.  Don’t feel like you’re entitled to women’s attention, or that you have a right to keep making flirty comments if someone asks you to stop.  And definitely don’t try to date your students.

Whew.  OK.  Moving on.

A lot of the narratives about sexual harassment in the news of late proclaim that we are making progress.  That we are going to Stop The Harassment from here on out.  “Astronomers are finally doing something about sexual harassment,” proclaimed The Atlantic in a piece that came out, rather ironically, a week before the latest two cases were revealed.  I suppose the academic world has made some progress—we’re actually talking about this stuff.  There exist offices at universities to whom one can report issues.  But…

Departments aren’t doing anywhere near enough.  In the sexual harassment cases at Berkeley and Caltech, there were great big shining fat red flags that were ignored.  Over the course of seven years at Caltech, the professor in question had graduated just two PhD students.  Which is maybe not that odd, given how long PhDs take to complete, except for the fact that nine students had started working in his group and then left.  Some report that they left because he was a jerk; others were “fired” (which isn’t a normal thing at the PhD level).  Even without any of the sexual harassment, the man was clearly a terrible advisor.  And yet he got tenure.

At Berkeley, the situation was even worse.  Students reported multiple instances of harassment to the department chair back in 2005 and were waved off; a year later, they tried complaining at the university level and were ignored.  Even when the university finally did get its act together and do an investigation, the results of that investigation were kept under wraps.  It wasn’t until BuzzFeed broke the story months later that the man was actually asked to resign.

I know of many more cases like this, some because they’ve been shared publicly, some because they’ve been spoken by people I know.  For all the hype about how prestigious it is to be a university professor, departments do an awfully shitty job of getting rid of people who don’t deserve to be there.  It often seems like the powers that be don’t give a damn about junior people.  They certainly don’t listen to us.

(Why yes, I am bitter about this.  I have thankfully not had any personal experience with sexual harassment, but I have had the lovely experience of working for an advisor who was absolute crap at their job and yet got promoted anyway.  Meritocracy, my foot.)

To wrap this up, I’d like to make a point about how this fits into the bigger picture of women in science.  Which is to say, it’s only one part of the story.

Sexual harassment isn’t the only thing driving women out of science. (And math, and tech, and various other traditionally male fields.)  Not that it isn’t a big problem.  If you think of the “leaky pipeline” metaphor for women in STEM, sexual harassment is like someone chopped off a fire hydrant and now water is just spraying everywhere into the street.  You’ve got to cap that off or all of your other efforts to fix leaks are useless.

But all the other leaks are still there.  Regular ol’ sexism is still there.  The whole structure of an academic career, which expects you to be unattached and willing to work 80 hours a week, or else have a stay-at-home spouse who doesn’t mind your long hours and is willing to move around the country (or world) with you every few years, is still there.  Imposter syndrome is still there.  If you write an article talking about how sexual harassment is The Thing keeping women out of science, then you are wrong.

From under the bridge

Familiar as I am with the Internet and Lewis’s Law, I was prepared that including the tag “feminism” on my last post might attract a certain genre of obtuse commenter.  I was not disappointed.

You won’t see the comment if you head over to that post now — such is the magic of the “delete” option.  It has been relegated to the trash bin, where it will languish for 30 days before passing into digital oblivion.

To be honest, I’m rather flattered.  Someone actually felt strongly enough about my post to reply to it in extensive detail.  I’m talking more words that the original post itself.  Whole paragraphs in response to excerpted sentences.  I don’t think anyone’s put that kind of work into commenting on my writing since, oh, high school?  Goodness knows that nobody gives me that much feedback on my research paper drafts in grad school, even when I straight-up ask them to do so.

I was also highly entertained.  The irony was just so delicious.  People would think it was “cruel” to outfit my baby boy in a pink dress?  Thank you for proving my point, dear commenter.  Oh, and I’m so glad you told me that women wear high heels to present ourselves as “frail, vulnerable damsels” and attract help from men, and that women are less interested in science because we can’t find husbands that way.  My silly little female brain couldn’t possibly have any thoughts of its own about women’s motivations; clearly, I needed someone to come along and mansplain it to me.

In fact, the comment was so ridiculous and such a perfect example of our society’s problem with fixed gender roles that I was almost tempted to leave it up.

Nah.

Raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes

During a recent conversation with my parents, the subject of college-branded baby clothes arose.  (My parents live near my alma mater and are fond of purchasing such themed items.)

“Little Boy’s going to need a new college onesie,” I said.  “He’s already nearly outgrown the one you gave us for Christmas.”

“We’ll keep an eye out,” they promised.  “Mostly what we’ve seen in stores lately is baby cheerleading outfits, and those aren’t for him.”

They’re not for him.

Why not?

For this particular question, the answer is personal taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to dress my hypothetical baby daughter in a cheerleading costume, either — it’s just not my style.  And lest you get the wrong idea about my parents, they raised a boy who played with dolls and a girl who won science competitions.  They would be appalled to think that I was using them as an example of sexist behavior, however unconscious.

But our exchange brought up a topic that I’ve been struggling with since Little Boy was born, namely, how do we raise a boy in a way that supports gender equality, without setting him up to be teased or pushing him to be someone he’s not?

The discussion around gender biases in American culture revolves around women.  We talk about how to encourage girls to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math).  Parents of daughters talk about their choice to allow, or not allow, all things princess-y and pink into their homes.  These discussions are necessary and important, because despite all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years, idiots are still saying stupid things about women’s capabilities in science and women still face systematic hurdles in breaking into these fields.  Not to mention all of the other countless ways in which sexism affects women’s lives.

We don’t talk as much about breaking gender stereotypes for boys.  There are no major campaigns to encourage boys to go into nursing or early childhood eduction.  We focus on guiding girls away from pink, not boys toward it.  When a woman wears men’s clothing, it’s unfashionable at worst.  When a man wears women’s clothes, it’s national news.

I am not — I repeat, I am NOT — trying to imply that boys have it harder or any such nonsense like that.   My white, male, middle-class child was born into a world built for him to succeed.  He will be “playing on the lowest difficulty setting,” as John Scalzi puts it.  Whoever Little Boy becomes and whoever he discovers himself to be, he will have a supportive and loving family behind him.

No, what bothers me about our culture’s current approach is that it still very much implies that there are “girls’ things” and “boys’ things.”  Now we say, “Hey girls, you can do boys’ things too!”  Which is great.  It’s progress.  But it’s not equality.

Let me elaborate with a specific example.  If Little Boy had been born a Little Girl, I might dress her in a frilly pink dress one day, baby blue jeans the next, and nobody would think anything of it.  But how would they react if I put Little Boy in a frilly pink dress?  Most of my friends and family could probably wrap their minds around the idea of allowing an older boy to wear a pink dress if he requested it, but a parent choosing a dress for a baby son would just be …

Weird.

Unnecessary.

Trying to make a statement.

Because “girly” things, pink dresses included, are for girls only.

Hidden in this cultural gender divide is the persistent notion that “girly” things are inferior.  American society can begin to process the idea that girls might want blocks and trains and video games, and that women might want to be firefighters and astronauts and CEOs.  Those are “male” things.  They are “better.”  Of course everyone would want them.

“Female” things?  Dresses and high heels and makeup?  Child care and sewing and ballet?  We don’t encourage boys to try these things to see if they might like them.  We assume that boys could never be interested in such “lesser” things, and so we never even offer.

As with most parenting choices, it’s hard to know what path to take.  I want Little Boy to grow up with as few “X is for boys, Y is for girls” opinions as possible.  I want him to feel free to be himself, whether that means playing on the football team or painting pictures of flowers — or both.  I want him to approach other people not as “men” and “women,” but as individuals with personalities and preferences and feelings.

But I’ll be fighting the heavy weight of culture, and I don’t want to transfer too much of that weight to Little Boy himself.  Children can be cruel to the strange ones.  His peers wouldn’t notice if he wore a pink skirt to daycare tomorrow, but in a few years they will.  I don’t want him to stick out like a sore thumb before he’s ready.

Little Boy will definitely grow up knowing how to cook and clean and do laundry, with a father who does all those things as his role model.  We’ll teach him how to knit and sew, and run and read and mow the lawn.  I’ll dig my dolls out of storage for him, to go along with trains and books and LEGOs.  Maybe I’ll buy him a nice boy doll of his own.  Or many boy dolls, if he shows interest.

Pink shirts?  Yeah, I think that’s going to happen.

Pink dresses?  I don’t know.