Dispelling the myths of benevolent sexism

benevolent sexism, sexism, girls, engineering, science, technology
Photo by Serban George.

“You’re kind of a handy girl, aren’t you?” said one of the movers as I used my Swiss army knife to open boxes and assemble furniture in my new home. It took me a moment to realize why this might seem unusual. After all, I’ve had that knife since I was a girl; my father never tried to protect me from a sharp blade.

The mover’s comment is emblematic of a bigger social phenomenon: We still don’t expect females to assemble, to build, to tinker. As a result, we often do for our daughters what we wouldn’t do for our sons.

This form of “benevolent sexism”—an attitude toward females that seems favorable or helpful but actually casts them as weak and in need of a male’s help or protection—occurs on a subconscious level. Out of love or a wish to protect, sometimes we take the screwdriver out of our daughter’s hand or offer to repair the flat bike tire for her. But ask any woman who works in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field and it’s likely she was given free rein to explore with such objects as a child.

Jennifer Blain Christen, PhD and assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, was taking things apart and putting them back together from a young age: “I think I was about 5 or 6 years old when I took our toaster apart to see how it worked.” She also remembers setting up a computer by herself as a child.

Andrea Ramos, president of Landmark Technical Sales in Chandler, credits her parents with providing her with gender-atypical opportunities. “My dad would allow me one ‘personal’ day per semester to miss school for a father-daughter fishing trip,” says Ramos. “He insisted that I help rebuild the engine of my first car before I was allowed to drive.”

Gilbert mom Michelle Moore embraces the value of tinkering. She allows her 5-year old-daughter Violet to help her do small projects around the house, such as hanging pictures. “She helps hammer the nail into the wall, understands how a level works and uses a measuring tape,” says Moore.

Amber Gaylord, also of Gilbert, calls 4-year-old daughter Vannah her “football player” and 7-year-old daughter Sydney her “Minecraft player.” Gaylord follows her daughters’ lead. “Vannah just told us one day she wanted to play football,” says Gaylord. “When she was old enough to walk, she was helping hand tools to her dad.”

Blain Christen, who is raising her daughter, Leandra, as she was raised—to engage in a variety of activities, regardless of her gender—quips, “She’s 4, so I am trying hard to hold off on the quantum mechanics.”