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Look at hir go!

August 26, 2011

Public reaction to a little kid that gets on a crowded bus and sits a few seats away from the parent differs wildly depending upon whether the public perceives the kid to be male or female.  People strongly disapprove of a little girl sitting “alone” next to – in particular – a man and the chill of silent social disapproval is strong enough for the child to pick up and act upon it.  A little boy sitting alone will elicit comments along the lines of “Look at him, Mr. Independent.  He doesn’t need his mama anymore, does he?”  Ditto a kid tearing down the sidewalk on a scooter.  A kid in a dress will trigger disapproving looks down the sidewalk for the irresponsible care-giver versus a “Look at him go!  No holding him back!”  These reactions are socially engrained.  I’m struck at how much less physically competent my own kids appear to my eyes to be when wearing a dress.  One way to mitigate this (among other negative effects of gendering) is to use gender neutral language.  I no longer ask “do you see that little girl over there” but rather “do you see that little kid over there”.  It’s subtle, but after re-tooling the language I use to describe the people around me for my children, I find that I do the same thing in my professional life as well.  And thinking and talking about the scientists I work with not as men and women, but rather as people allows me to see them more clearly.  Language colors perception and gender-neutral language helps us perceive the people around us with less bias.

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One Comment
  1. TinkeringTheorist permalink

    At my son’s 4 year check up they had a special eye chart for people who don’t read. There were a bunch of Es that were rotated such that they were ‘pointing’ left, right, up, or down. You had to say which picture they were pointing to. Before the test, they discussed what the pictures were. There was a cat at the top and a snake at the bottom (or something like that) and he correctly identified them. Then when (right after being asked about 2 animals) he was asked about the pictures to the left and right, he said it was ‘a person’ and ‘another person!’ He was supposed to say ‘girl’ and ‘boy’, and after he was told that he went with it and finished the test. But I was so proud of him that the first thing he thinks is that they are people. It totally made sense to me. The person doing the test thought it was funny, as though nobody ever says that, but didn’t make a big deal about it or anything.

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