A case study of pinkification as a failing strategy for diversity

[Guest posting this on our college's dean's blog]

I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”

The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:

“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”

-and-

“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”

The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.

Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all – this is the new normal.

Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of “pinkification” as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:

- offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;

- changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (what, men don’t? not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);

- putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;

… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?

So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.

Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck”  – maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” – and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?

Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them – and contribute to shaping their sense of self.

Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.

What other ideas do you have?

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