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Women, Pullups and Astronomy

April 18, 2000

When I started these pages, it was my unspoken goal to correct misinformation about the scientific nature of astronomy; the misuse of terms, propagation of incorrect ideas, etc. But not all Bad Astronomy is factually based. Sometimes it has a more subtle flavor.

Women make up roughly half the population of the planet, yet they are vastly outnumbered by men in the sciences. Teachers, professors, researchers and students in science are mostly men, even after years of efforts by both men and women to correct this. This is generally true all over the world, although it has been pointed out to me that there is reasonable parity of men and women in astronomy in places like Russia and in South America. Unfortunately, women still lag far behind in America, a supposedly enlightened country.

Why is this? The reasons are legion, and I will not detail them now. Perhaps the biggest reason is the not-so-subtle gender bias in society overall, and not just the sciences in particular. My daughter is 4 years old, and has a predilection for kids' shows. When the commercials come on, I am appalled: girls are almost universally shown playing with dolls which are only used for makeup and clothes, while boys' toys are typically aggressive and violent. This is old news, to be sure, but my point is that this sort of training begins very young.

Maybe even younger than you think. In a recent issue of several parenting magazines, the Kimberly-Clark corporation advertised Pull-Ups, a type of diaper for slightly older toddlers that the child can pull up or down themself. It's a stepping stone between diapers and grown-up clothes. Due to some obvious physiological differences, Pull-Ups are different for boys than girls. A new idea for Pull-Ups is to put a decorative pattern on them that fades when it gets wet; this can be used as an incentive for the child to keep the Pull-Ups dry.

image of girl's Pull-Ups with flowers This may be a good idea, but it's the patterns themselves that bother me. Here's the tie-in with astronomy: the boys' Pull-Ups have stars on them, while the girls' have flowers.

I find this interesting. Why did they choose these decorations? Obviously enough, they were following social prejudices about what patterns the kids will prefer, or more likely, what parents think their kids will prefer. Girls dress in pink and like flowers, boys dress in blue and like science.

image of original ad It's a subtle issue, but in my opinion a real one. Even in these enlightened days, there are far fewer women astronomers than men. You might think it's because there are fewer women starting out in astronomy, but that's not the case: studies have shown that early on (undergraduate and even earlier), there are far more women entering astronomy, but by the time they get out of graduate school and look for tenure track positions, the women/men ratio has dropped precipitously. Women drop out along the way to a career in astronomy. Again, there are many reasons for this, but women interviewed say that they get tired of fighting the sexism and prejudice of male colleagues, and that the male-dominated committees tend to pick fewer women for advanced positions. Even in astronomy, which studies the far reaches of the Universe, women have a glass ceiling.
closeup of ad

Ironically, the Pull-Ups ad states: ``You can even make a game of seeing how long your child can keep the magic flowers (for girls) or stars (for boys) from fading. So use new Pull-Ups to help your child achieve an important accomplishment-- one to be truly proud of.'' You may be helping your child physically by potty-training them, and a product that eases the transition between diapers and grown up clothes will certainly help their their self-esteem, but I think we can do even better by trying to get both boys and girls into non-traditional gender roles.

It would be nice to see stars used for girls' decorations. Don't get me wrong; I am not trying to hold up Kimberly-Clark as a bad company, nor am I discouraging people from buying the product (I bought them myself for my own daughter a few years ago). I simply think that this product was designed without enough care towards the message. Perhaps if we encourage more little girls to take an interest in science early on, more of them will stick with it despite the obstacles; if there are more girls and women involved with the sciences, then there is more of a support group to help them later on.

What else can we do about this? There is an organization called ``The Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy'', a part of the American Astronomical Society, which is a defender of women's rights in astronomy. Visit their web page and look around; there are many fascinating articles, including first hand accounts from women astronomers. You can also check out the Women and Science Relevant Web Links which has lots more info on this issue as well.

You can also tell Kimberly-Clark what you think as well. First, you can visit the Pull-Ups website, and then you can fill out an online contact form. I filled out the form myself, with a gentle and polite query about the reasoning behind their decoration choice for Pull-Ups. If/when I get a response, I'll post it here.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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