TV: The Root of the Gender Gap in STEM fields and the Seed for Future Growth

Problem: Is it nature or nurture that generates the prominent gender divides in our modern society, explicitly painting the spheres of education, work, and activities with the color pink or blue? Whether it is intentional or not, today’s young girls are taught to color in the lines, design sparkly things, and wear bows in their hair. Meanwhile, boys are seen with a hammer in their hand ready to fix a problem or solve a crisis. These cultural schemas penetrate every aspect of modern life, depicting the way we live, learn, and work. Schemas, according to Valian, are mental constructs that serve as the instinctual generalizations and perceptions of gender roles in society.[1] The representations and embodiment of these cookie cutter gender schemas are especially alarming within the televised education programs for young kids.

From an early age, a child’s brain is etched with sounds, shapes, and ideas. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child’s brain undergoes immense growth during the first three years of life, with the brain’s mass tripling in just the first 12 months. [2] The stimuli experienced during this period have significant effects on the child’s brain development. One prominent source of stimuli for this generation, who was born with their eyes glued to a screen, is television programs designed to educate, encourage and excite young viewers. For infants and toddlers, images on television screens differ significantly from those in the real world. The inability of the child to perceive the difference between the two worlds can have lasting effects on vital functions, including language development, vision and memory, cognitive development and attention. 2

In the 21st century the disparity of interests of young girls and boys is evidenced in the toy isles of your neighborhood Wal-Mart, and echoed in the array of popular Disney channel shows. Whether it is their parent’s iPhone or their home television, kids today are entranced by the characters that dance, sing, and act on the screens that are in front of their eyes on a daily basis. So what are they watching, and what exactly are they learning from these shows? Are the TV characters showing our kids that it is cool to be smart, to think critically, to solve problems, or even to be creative?

Despite the medium of entertainment or the general topic matter of the show, the universal interest of kids is to watch interesting TV characters so that they can later emulate the characters in their own lives. What kid wants to be the geeky computer nerd when he or she can be a princess or a superhero? What we chose to broadcast to our kids now will ultimately determine what life they will lead in the future. In a long-term study that concluded in 2001, researchers observed that preschoolers who viewed educational programs tend to have higher grades, are less aggressive, and value their studies more when they reach high school. [3] Therefore, it is imperative to regulate the shows available to young children as they play a significant role in establishing the foundational pieces of a child’s education.

Goal: In the recent Yahoo article, Sugared Puppy Dog Tail: Gender and Design, writer Elizabeth F. Churchill recounted her fond childhood memories of Lady Penelope Creighton- Ward, a stylish and brazen female British secret agent who starred in the 1960’s British TV series “The Thunderbirds”.[4] Churchill relates Lady Penelope to other iconic female characters of power from Rosie the Riveter to the modern day Powder-puff girls. All of these heroine type characters exude confidence in the way they dress, talk, and act. They represent everything that a young girl dreams of becoming, while encouraging her to dream big and to be confident. This is not exactly the message that is disseminated by modern kid’s TV shows.

A brief overview of current Disney Junior shows reveals that out of the fifteen shows that currently air on TV, nine have a male lead character and only four have female lead.[5] The additional two shows feature a male/female pair. However, the main issue is not that there are only four female lead characters, but rather that the four featured female characters consist of a princess, a baker, a girl who plays doctor with her cute stuffed animals, and a pink calico cat cowgirl who is the town sheriff. In juxtaposition, the boy character leads include a scientist, a pirate, a train, a handy man, a ship captain, a secret agent, a monster, a dashing prince, a monster, and Mickey Mouse.

Not only are the messages of these shows attempting to teach kids about problem solving, friendship, bravery, manners, sharing, and caring, but they also purposefully show them, through the behaviors of the characters, how they should act in their own lives. These are the role models that our children are learning to emulate, sing along with, and dream about. Where are these young boys and girls going to learn about a computer programmer or coder who saves the day or solves a problem with an app? However, this inherent problem that is reflected across the kid’s TV show industry can be solved. There are so many ways to show young kids that technology is a powerful tool for solving problems and that anyone can create new things with modern technology. By creating shows that encourage and stimulate the brains of our kids, we provide them with the technological tools necessary to create the future.

Solution: One direct solution to confront this problem is to change the status quo of kids TV shows by introducing something new.  For example, a new appealing yet educational show that features female characters who are innovative and daring tech wizards that tackle their every-day problems with a can- do attitude, would be a one-of-a-kind show.  A specific show that comes to mind is a YouTube series called Purple and Nine that was envisioned and created by Rebecca Rachmany and her organization, Gangly Sister. [6]This new show seeks to inspire girls and boys alike to explore the STEM fields by encouraging them to follow the actions of the two main characters, Purple Isosceles and Nine Helix. These two girls love to build, explore, learn new things, solve problems by daring to be themselves and face challenges, such as building a 3-D printer.

Although Rachmany and Rubin are adamant that this series remains non-commercial, the topic matter, setting, and plot line has the potential to combat the stereotypical messages sent to young girls in other shows, such as Disney’s Princess Sofia. If Disney opened their eyes to this opportunity of growth, they would be able to diversify the Disney Junior show and provide young girls with two new realistic role models.

Rachmany and her co-founder Ofer Rubin designed these two characters to be fun and realistic models of kids that believe it is cool to be creative, curious, unique, and independent. [7] When asked about the show Rachmany stated, “The world of TV has odd assumptions, for example, that you need a villain to make a plot work, or that girls relate to boy characters but boys don’t relate to girl characters. With Purple and Nine, we break a lot of the traditional rules of television and animation. We know the rules, but because we aren’t from the industry, we have a lot of freedom to break them.”6 Additionally, Rachmany believes that this show dives into the deeper issue of how kids form unrealistic self-images because of the things they are exposed to at young ages, namely TV and movies. She says, “If you look at TV and you see the ‘geeks’ are portrayed as socially inept, your subconscious will push you away from that. Nobody wants to be a social outcast…. It’s just crazy, but I (as a kid) had gotten a strong subliminal message that you could be gorgeous or smart, but not both.”6

 A show like this on the Disney channel would transform the means of stimulating kids interests in the fields of science, engineering, math, and even medicine. Referring back to Churchill, the product creator is responsible for embedding a gendered norm into certain facets of life, such as cooking versus coding.[8] Although most of these cultural schemas in kid’s TV shows are inadvertently reproduced cultural norms, the only way to change the status quo is to dare to create something new. Characters like Purple and Nine are the perfect example of this. Not only do so few of these types of female characters exist, but the ones that do seem to apologize for being different. Instead, Purple and Nine are proud of their unique gifts, and flaunt them as something that makes them cool. If we can teach our kids that it is cool to design 3-D printers, to invent edible play-dough, or even to design a robot that does your homework then we are really stimulating their brains and hardwiring their futures for a path of limitless creativity and growth. The future of women in the STEM fields starts with these foundational building blocks of a child’s education. By teaching young boys and girls alike, through educational, compelling, and realistic TV programs such as Purple and Nine, we can ingrain within them the belief that anyone, no matter your age, ethnicity, or gender, can be an engineer, a teacher, a nurse, a coder, or a CEO. This integral mindset plants the seeds for future growth of the STEM fields, and opens the doors of possibility for a future that stems from technological innovation and ingenuity.

References:

[1] Valian. “Schemas that Explain Behavior.” pg. 2 Accessed December 7th, 2014

[2] Holden, Martha. “How Does Television Affect the Brains of Young Children?” Demand Media. Accessed December 6th, 2014. http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/television-affect-brains-young-children-20676.html

[3] Raise Smart Kid. “The Good and bad Effects of TV on Children.” Accessed December 7th, 2014. http://www.raisesmartkid.com/all-ages/1-articles/13-the-good-and-bad-effects-of-tv-on-your-kid

[4] Churchill, Elizabeth. “Sugared Puppy Dog Tails: Gender and Design.” Yahoo News. March- April Edition (2010) pg. 52. Accessed December 5th, 2014

[5] List of programs Broadcast by Disney Junior (US). Wikipedia. Accessed December 5th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_programs_broadcast_by_Disney_Junior_(United_States)

[6] Gangly Sister LLC. “About Us” Page. (2014) http://www.ganglysister.com

Accessed December 5th, 2014.

[7] Bradford, Laurence. “Rebecca Rachmany: CEO and Creator of Purple and Nine TV Show.” (2014 June 18) Accessed December 5th, 2014.

http://learntocodewith.me/women/rebecca-rachmany/

[8] Churchill, Elizabeth.

Cover Image: http://www.eknazar.com/News/uploaded/GA4051_3iboytv.jpg

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