Sometime in the late 80’s, I saw a “Chess … For Girls!” game. It was exactly like every other chess set in the world, except it was pink and sparkly. I remember wondering how exactly that product development meeting went down. “Well, we don’t want too many people to want our product … so how can we alienate a good chunk of customers?”. No boy is going to want “Chess … For Girls!” even if they’d like a sparkly pink chess set. Some subset of parents will refuse to purchase it because it’s offensive targeting. It isn’t like derivatives of traditional chess are unique – they could have done anything with the marketing. Sets featuring Stan Lee’s superheros aren’t marketed as “Chess … For Boys!”. They could have just called it Chess. They could have made a few different versions featuring glow in the dark pieces, sparkles, and furry animals. But, no … they first imply that other chess sets aren’t for girls. And that the way you can identify a product as being “for girls” is to look for pink sparkles.
I thought we’d moved on from such marketing fails – hell, SNL made a spoof commercial with the exact premise. But today we saw https://jewelbots.com/ … so you can “code like a girl”. Umm, hi! I code just like most other programmers – with a keyboard and using a syntax appropriate for the language of choice. Like girl chess or that Google engineer’s terribly presented suggestion for diversity programs, the sexism isn’t even needed. The product is billed as 21st century friendship bracelets. Bands with what I assume are little Arduino computers in a round plastic thing that makes the whole unit look a little bit like a watch. The plastic housing has a flower design on it. Make an array of inter-changeable band options, a bunch of different plastic cases … and just call them 21st century friendship bracelets. You assign colours to registered friends, and the bracelet glows that colour when your friend is nearby. Use Bluetooth to send secret messages to friends. It’s a cool product for either gender. And, hey parents … your kids are learning valuable programming skills too.
A recent meeting included a call back to “math is hard barbie” — back in 1992, Mattel produced a ‘talking’ Barbie that (among other phrases) said “math class is tough”. They ended up recalling the doll – a process which I assume cost the company quite a bit of money. And bad press. As a sophomore in high school, I didn’t understand the controversy. I was concurrently taking both Algebra 2 and Geometry (allowing me to complete two years of Calculus at graduation), so I had some experience with math classes.
The thing that struck me — the actual phrase is not untrue. Sometimes math class was hard. As someone with hand-eye coordination issues, art class was hard too. As someone who is tone deaf, music class was really hard. People who take offense at someone declaring something to be ‘hard’ have themselves declared difficult things as somehow negative. Not worth doing. I understand that the offense was people familiar with existing stereotypes extrapolating the statement to mean “girls think math is hard and girls avoid difficult academic subjects” or “females think math is hard because their brains don’t work that way and males have an innate advantage”.
I worry that we’re selling people false hope by refusing to tell them that something is hard. At some point, you’re going to encounter reality. I studied theoretical physics – gravitation, specifically gravitational phenomenon brought about during binary black hole collisions. Had someone told me it was going to be a super easy way to earn money – head into a computer lab for a few hours a day, drink some coffee, do a little typing, and head home … wow, what a shock my first day would have been. Why don’t we work on teaching people that a lot of things are hard. And each person makes their own effort:reward analysis. Raising chickens is a lot harder than picking a carton up at the grocery store; but if you like fresh eggs, or if you like to ensure the welfare of the animals providing your eggs, if you want to avoid using fossil fuels to transport your food, or if you just want to be involved in the process of generating your food … you decide to get some chickens. If you want to understand the mechanisms of the universe, you learn the math and physics. You do the research.