There is plenty of interesting research regarding women in male-dominated fields of study that has greatly contributed to my understanding of our current position in society. I will focus my research on how the media and its consumer products that target females, predisposes them at young ages to see themselves as superficial beings. These key patriarchal structures lower women’s self confidence and create norms that make them less likely to enter male-dominated fields of study. Consequently, these male-dominated fields are given more value and prestige in our society over the “female” fields of study, such as the social sciences, the arts, and nursing. The female-dominated fields of study are in no way lesser to male-dominated fields of study, but have been labeled as easier, thus overall undervaluing women’s work. This fact becomes a double edged sword for women: if women do decide to enter a male dominated fields of study, their self esteems have often been lowered by society and the media. Their experience and predisposition to technology is less likely to be equal to males’ and it is thus a lot more difficult for them to succeed and feel welcome in these fields. This is related to my first research question, which asks:
Why are women less likely to inter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields of study?
I address this question by looking at the research regarding consumer products that are marketed towards females in our society and the effects that these products have. Some very popular consumer products that have been targeted at younger girls for decades now, include the Easy-bake oven and Barbie dolls. On the other hand, consumer products that have targeted young boys are more along the lines of remote control toy trucks, and Lego (K’Nex, MegaBloks, etc., etc.). Starting with the Easy-bake oven, whose marketing is blatantly aimed at girls, it sends a clear message to young girls about their place in society as homemakers. In Mckenna Pope’s article, she points out, “Boys are not featured in packaging or promotional materials for Easy Bake Ovens — this toy my brother’s always dreamed about. And the oven comes in gender-specific hues: purple and pink” (Strasser, 2012). She adds, “I feel that this sends a clear message: women cook, men work.” This toy reinforces gender norms to young girls, sending them sexist messages at very young ages of what women’s jobs should be. Additionally, it plants the idea in young boys’ minds that only girls should bake, as it did in Pope’s younger brother who quickly lost his interest in baking after watching the Easy-bake oven commercials.
Secondly, a hugely successful toy for young girls has been the Barbie doll, a piece of plastic that has been found to have hugely detrimental impacts on the self esteem and body image of young girls. First, the Barbie doll has completely unrealistic measurements at “6 feet tall, about 100 pounds, and 39-19-33” (Anschutz, 2013) if she were to be a real person. The Barbie doll’s success as a product is attributed to her ideal looks, having large breasts and a miniature waist, not to any intellectual ability this plastic doll may foster in young girls. What message about female success does this send to young girls? It tells them that to be successful they must focus on their physical looks, not on their intellectual abilities. To back up these points, there have been several studies completed that examine the Barbie dolls’ impacts on young girls body images, indicating the doll is directly related to lower food intake and low self-esteem. In one study done by Dr. Emma Halliwell (University of West England), Dr. Helga Dittmar and Susie Ives (Sussex University), they gave a group of 162 children aged 5-8 different books (Dittmar et. Al, 2006). The children were told stories while looking at images in the book they were given. They were “exposed to images of either Barbie dolls, Emme dolls (U.S. size 16), or no dolls (baseline control) and then completed assessments of body image. Girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape than girls in the other exposure conditions ” (Dittmar et. Al, 2006). These are among many findings that prove Barbie dolls have immediate negative effects on the minds of young girls who are in the process of developing their self-identity. Another interesting finding of the study was that the Barbie dolls no longer had immediate negative impacts on older girls, due to the fact that older girls were no longer interested in the Barbie dolls. This shows that the younger girls who still had interest in Barbie, saw her as an “aspirational role model” (Dittmar et. Al, 2006), thus increasing their risk of disorder eating and insecurity, as they aspired to be just like Barbie. Backing this up Cindy Jackson admits, “I looked at a Barbie doll when I was 6 and said, ‘This is what I want to look like.’ I think a lot of little 6-year-old girls or younger even now are looking at that doll and thinking, ‘I want to be her’ ” (model Cindy Jackson on CBS News, 2004). Considering the proportions given to Barbie dolls are unrealistic and unattainable, young girls are given an unreachable ideal to strive for. These fostered insecurities at such young ages likely set precedents for who they become and what they aspire towards later in their lives, creating negative self-image in young girls from the beginning of their childhood.
The effects of giving young girls these thin dolls to play with, are documented in a second study done by Doeschka J. Anschutz and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. Their study found that playing with thin dolls “directly affected actual food intake in young girls” and additionally, for the girls that were given Barbie dolls, “a higher BMI was related to lower body esteem” (Anschutz, 2010). With so much evidence indicating the negative effects on girls’ self-confidence that these toys have, it is astounding that they continue to be mass-produced. Their continued mass production contributes to the unequal playing grounds that women and men are placed on from young ages, and the results can be seen in schools and the work force.
Adding to self-esteem issues, girls must face an array of products marketed towards them to make them believe they need to look thiner, tanner, sparklier, taller, shinier, more glowing, less greasy, more moisturized, have bigger eyes, poutier lips, longer lashes, smaller noses, depuffed eyes, curlier hair, straighter hair, more voluminous hair, moisturized hair, less hair, and the list goes on and on and on. From birth to death women are targeted with products that tell them they are not good enough as they are. They are constantly being told by the media that they need to be superficially enhanced to be appealing and successful; that a woman’s success is measured by her beauty. These products label women as superficial beings, placing higher value on a woman’s looks rather than her abilities (Crouch, 1998, p. 585). These products continue to portray airbrushed, unrealistic ideals of women in their commercials that do not represent the majority of real women, fostering insecurities and low self esteems. As a result of these massive beauty product campaigns that also deeply permeate the media, both sexes relate a woman’s appearance to her success, rather than valuing women for their intelligence and capability. As a result, once women enter the workplace and educational institutions highly dominated by men, they are taken less seriously as intelligent beings, and often judged based on their looks.
Even Dove’s “real beauty” campaign, which apparently “aims to change the status quo and offer in its place a broader, healthier, more democratic view of beauty. A view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday” (Dove, 2013) still is focused on the superficial. They launched their campaign by saying “We believe real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages. That is why Dove is launching the Campaign for Real Beauty” (Dove, 2013). This new message that the media is giving to women sounds very positive and empowering on the surface, but the message continues to be that women’s value comes from their looks. In the new video titled “Dove Real Beauty Sketches”, it shows a group of women criticizing their appearances saying they have a “fat, rounded faced”, “wrinkles”, “freckles” or a “slightly protruding chin”, while a forensic artist paints these images. Then another person describes the same women, and then the women get to see the difference between the two painted descriptions. The message they were trying to send to women is that “you are more beautiful than you think” (Dove Real Beauty Sketches, 2013). This seems like a great thing to tell women, except why does their physical appearance matter so much. They are also telling women that being fatter, wrinkled, freckled, or having a different chin are all negative things, and that they are just less fat, wrinkled, etc. than they thought. Is this really such a positive message to be sending? Then, at the end of they commercial, they go on to say this natural beauty “impacts the choices in friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children. It impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness” (Dove Real Beauty Sketches, 2013). So after telling women not to stress so much about their appearances, the commercial goes on to say that appearances impact every aspect of women’s lives. Even in these feel-good campaigns the media still is incapable of putting value on anything other than a woman’s appearance. Looking into the company’s background, it is no surprise that Unilever is the sponsor and owner of Dove, the same company that puts out Axe commercials that completely objectify women. These commercials consist of men spraying themselves with Axe body spray and then instantly having flocks of half naked, skinny women chasing them down, wanting them. These are the messages that women are constantly receiving, through even the products that insist on “real beauty”; that the main important thing is to look good; if you look good (which you probably don’t unless you’re an ideal white, skinny, supermodel with perfect everything), you’ll feel good, so make sure to buy our products so you can look good girls!
When looking at the consumer products that are targeted at young boys, the effects on self-esteem and ability are opposing to those of Barbie dolls, Easy Bake Ovens, and “Real” Beauty campaigns. Instead, boys are often given tools for innovation that help to develop motor and logical thinking skills. Kathryn’s investigation into the effect of Lego suggest that through playing with the toys for 15-20 minutes per day, “They’ll be studying physics and engineering without even trying. They learn to balance weight to create taller buildings, build bridges and they learn economics by having to know how many pieces of each type is needed to accomplish their goal” (Kathryn, 2007). The Lego pieces give young boys a medium to express their creativity and take pride in their creations, fostering a positive self-esteem. On top of being exposed to creative tools, young boys are also much more highly exposed to technology and electronics, fostering an interest in the sciences at young ages and a curiosity for learning about the physical world.
Looking at what the research says about the effects that consumer products marketed towards young girls have compared to young boys, the difference is huge. It is horrifying to see how blatantly sexist and detrimental to equality these differences are, destroying young girls’ self esteems from ages as young as five years old, while fostering confidence and creativity in young boys. These are the ages where children are just beginning to get a grasp of the world around them. They absorb large amounts of information from their surroundings and are just beginning to use this information to shape their understanding of themselves. Giving girls toys that lower their self-esteems, while giving boys toys that foster their creativity at these ages lays the foundations for the young adults and people that they will develop into. Consequently, girls tend to develop lower self esteems compared to males. This dichotomy creates an array of issues for women, as they will then be less likely to believe in themselves when pursuing a goal, and in pursuing studies societally labelled as more difficult.
Dr. Debora Oswald’s research on social cognitive career theory and women’s career choices supports these ideas. The theory “proposes that occupational choices are directly influenced by occupational interests and expectations for positive outcomes and indirectly by self-efficacy (the belief in one’s ability to succeed on the task)” (Oswald, 2008). She points out that the development of lower self-esteem (such as that resulting from these consumer products targeting young girls) means that females may not expect themselves to succeed at a task over a male, thus affecting their career choices. If they do not have confidence in their own success, they are less likely to strive to further themselves in a job or go for a career that is generally looked at by society as more difficult. Additionally, their lack of exposure throughout childhood and adolescence to technology and the sciences compared to males, further lowers their confidence in these fields, limiting the career choices they are likely to believe they can succeed in. Thus a concise connection can be seen between the differences in the advertising campaigns for products that target males and females, and the resulting career fields they choose to enter. Women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields of study, can be seen as a clear result of years of destructive media exposure.
I found that looking at the existing literature, I had to, in a way piece it all together. There was plenty of existing literature regarding the negative impacts of the media and consumer products on women, and there was also literature saying these impacts lead to women’s lowered self confidence and self-value as intellectual beings. There was also literature talking about how social cognitive theory affected women’s actions; if they don’t believe they can do it, they are less likely to do it. I pieced these separate theories together to outline the impacts these self-confidence destroying toys and campaigns have on women’s later career choices, and self-confidence while in these career choices. I found that altogether, a gap in the literature existed for this direct correlation.
Literature on how women are affected when engaging in male-dominated fields of study is available but limited, and I hope to gain a better understanding of this through my research. I did however find an excellent website that exists specifically for women in technology called Women 2.0. Their article titled “Is It Too Cold to “Lean In”? Women In STEM” (Williams, 2013), discusses the difficulties that women in STEM fields have faced in just the last couple of weeks. Some of these included men making “lewd jokes in an earshot at a PyCon Conference” to a female developer, after which she was fired for publicly reporting the men; an after party at a separate tech conference which hired scantily clad women dancers to sashay on stage; and a popular about-science Facebook page’s publisher promoting her new Twitter handle receiving a shocked response from her fans that she was a female. Additionally, this article talks about several studies that found women feeling a sense of discomfort in STEM fields of study, and showing that even job advertisements would target men and exclude women. In a campaign by tech company Klout, they include slogans such as “want to bro down and crush some code”, completely excluding women as their targeted employees, and additionally portraying coding as a male-only activity!
This article concisely shows the very recent struggles women are facing while trying to be accepted in STEM fields of study. It shows their general exclusion, even starting from the beginning of the hiring process, which displays the degree of patriarchy that continues to exist in our society to this day. The article goes on to talk about how “several women in Silicon Valley reported that women get “the job but not the title,” and that they’re told over and over again that they are “not ready” for a promotion” (Williams, 2013). This shows how women are undervalued in STEM fields and are not viewed as equals to men when they have the same qualifications, but are instead seen as less competent. Women in these fields of study must continue to face difficulties and harsh criticism while the media simultaneously continues to send messages that a woman’s value is in her looks not her brains. This research highlights the struggles that women are facing and requires further analysis in order for viable solutions to come about.