Girls With Toys

This is what real scientists look like.

#GirlsWithToys chemist working in laboratory
When people reinforce the “boys with toys” stereotype, they obscure all the hard work so many scientists of every gender are doing.

Photo by Thinkstock

On Saturday morning, I turned on NPR while I made breakfast for my daughter and me. We had a big day ahead: first the farmers market, then a nearby forest preserve’s migratory bird festival featuring a mist-netting demonstration and the chance to take home and dissect your own owl pellet.

I listened to Scott Simon introduce a piece in a series called Joe’s Big Idea, which is intended to explore “how ideas become innovations and inventions.” The piece was about a scientist, and I’m a scientist, so of course my ears perked up as Joe Palca interviewed Caltech astrophysicist Shrinivas Kulkarni. It started on a great note: Palca asked Kulkarni what is beyond the universe, and they had a conversation on abstract versus practical questions in astronomy. Then, Kulkarni made a statement that is getting a lot of attention.

Kulkarni: “Many scientists are I think, secretly, are what I call ‘boys with toys.’”

Palca: “Boys with toys.”

Kulkarni: “And I think there’s nothing wrong with that, except—“

Palca: “Boys with toys.”

Kulkarni: “—you’re not supposed to say that.”

In the style that now seems to be the norm on NPR, Palca’s voice interrupts Kulkarni’s. When he repeats Kulkarni’s phrase, his delivery is both amused and authoritative, with emphasis on both the words boys and toys. An opportunity to engage Kulkarni on what may have been a misstep becomes instead a reinforcement, by Palca, of gender norm expectations.

And that’s when I got angry.

My 7-year-old daughter knows more about whooping crane migration than most adults do, can sex a monarch butterfly, and has designed her own tools using a 3-D printer in her dad’s lab. But I know what is coming: Research shows that middle school, a major time for gender identity development, is when many girls begin to lose a sense of having science be part of their identities. By high school many drop science classes despite outperforming the boys who stay. In higher education, implicit biases will continue to plague her: Recent work presented by Daniel Z. Grunspan at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings, for instance, demonstrated that in biology classrooms, male students are not only evaluated by their peers as more competent, but male students consistently underevaluate female students. In my own work, in a collaboration with Julienne Rutherford, Robin Nelson, and Katie Hinde, we have shown that female scientists in the field sciences, particularly trainees, face hostile work environments, including sexual harassment and assault.

As a scientist, I enjoy not only the broad theoretical questions of my field of biological anthropology—questions such as what it means to be human or what environmental pressures motivated our most interesting adaptations—but also the day-to-day fun of designing studies, collecting data, analyzing it in the lab, and creating statistical models to make sense of it all. My lab has freezers full of human piss and spit, my hard drive is full of ultrasound images of uteruses and ovaries, and I rub my hands with glee at the thought of buying both a new ultrasound machine and multiplexer—a piece of equipment that will allow my students to measure multiple hormones and biomarkers from a single sample at once—this summer. I am definitely a girl with toys.

So Saturday morning, on a whim rather than out of any particularly calculated decision, I started riffling through my phone’s photo gallery, looking for pictures of my daughter or the students in my laboratory (all of whom are female) doing science. I found a few and posted them with the hashtag #girlswithtoys. Soon after, scientists on Twitter started sharing their own images of girls and women with toys, most of them far cooler toys than I’ll ever get to use in my research.

Every time we impose gender on an action or a role—and every time we reinforce that gendering—we are placing limits on people. “Boys with toys” is a very specific stereotype of scientists. It brings to mind not only the phrase “boys will be boys,” one that tends to exempt boys and men from paying attention to culturally appropriate behavior, but also the idea that scientists perform science only for their own enjoyment.

I am guessing that every single scientist out there is a scientist because it brings him or her happiness—the joys of curiosity and discovery are unending and life-affirming. But many, perhaps most, are also scientists because they think their work will lead to a better world. They want to engage with the universe, their planet, and the people on it because science makes those interactions more meaningful. They want to bring science to more people, to get a chance to share that delight with as many others as possible. They want to use that science to make technology safer, games more fun, oceans cleaner, bodies healthier.

When a scientist and an NPR journalist reinforce the “boys with toys” stereotype, they obscure all the hard work so many scientists of every gender are doing to transform science and make it accessible.

After venting and sharing a few pictures, I spent the rest of the day with my daughter: two girls with toys, two girls with big questions about the world, two scientists finding joy in the everyday practice of discovery. At the migratory bird festival, the naturalist demonstrating mist netting and tagging began to pull a captured bird, chirping away, from one of its safety sacks. “Oh, that’s a downy woodpecker,” my daughter said before he got it all the way out. “I recognize the call.”

Here’s a big idea: Those who truly innovate are those who take responsibility for the culture they create. Rather than reinforcing stereotypes, it’s time to try to eliminate them.