Several members of our Wikid GRRLs project team had the chance to enjoy Gloria Steinem’s talk yesterday at the University of Maryland. It was a great atmosphere with so many attending and expressing their joy to listen to the activist, journalist, and co-founder of Ms Magazine in 1972.
I want to sum up some of the answers and messages she had for her eager audience. She based her talk mainly on questions that had been submitted to her beforehand. Then she took many more from the long row of students queuing up at the microphones to be able to say “Hi Gloria.”
Here are some of her core messages, which all centered around the construction of gender starting early on:
- On women’s depiction in video games: “We need to point out the politics. And we have to invent our own games.”
- “The role of men in women’s movements is whatever they want it to be!”
- On academic feminism and scholarship: Sometimes I want to put a big sign on the road to Harvard and Yale reading “Beware! Deconstruction Ahead!” Research without resulting in action loses some of its purpose.
- “Money is boring after we’ve got food and shelter etc. unless you do something interesting with it. What is enough?”
- “Some cultures don’t have words for she or he; people are people, imagine that?! And we give gender to tables and chairs in French.”
- Women’s movements are still too much in silos. First we had dependence, then independence, now we need more interdependence, also including the environmental movement since space on earth is limited and is directly linked to reproductive freedom.
Most important in regard to our undertaking with our Wikid GRRLs project is one of the first remarks she made after acknowledging her own fear of public speaking and how in her mid-30s she had to learn to speak to audiences.
She said that we are all born feminists, in the sense that we are all starting out as kids thinking we’re all equal, calling out what’s not fair on the playground regardless if we are born female or male, that we all want to be boss in the sand box — until gender roles kick in. Until it is not perceived to be okay for a girl to rough up or climb trees.
We can clearly see how constructed gender roles have kicked in when it comes to computing, programming, and inventing and producing internet technologies and knowledge-related content. That is where we come in at Wikid GRRLS. After extensively studying the Wikipedia gender gap — only 13 percent of women edit or write articles on Wikipedia as a UN University worldwide study showed — we got the chance to turn our findings into action. One of the main conclusions was that a lot of research literature demonstrates that early gender role construction encourages boys to play with technology, to be persistent, to be “loud” in public. Somewhere in middle school, research indicates, we lose girls when it comes to technology and computing albeit they are curious to try. This is now a well-identified part of the problem of women’s absence in STEM fields.
So much so that a recent episode of the popular CBS show Big Bang Theory an entire episode centered around the idea to pull in women into sciences. And rightly, but as usual in his condescending manner, character Sheldon finds the cure: catch the girls early on, college is too late! Thus he and his science “geek” friends visit a high school to try to lure the young women into the sciences, with their typical mix of politically correct and incorrect ways. While at the same time their girlfriends — two of them scientists, too — are explicitly and ironically pressed into Disney princess dresses, which “Amy” actress Mayim Bialik reflects upon critically.
But back to the core idea: “early” is the key word. Earlier even than high school. While we are teaching middle school girls (and some high school freshmen) how to write in a wiki, how to research reliable information, adding photos, and presenting their online work with confidence, we are also conducting pre- and post-workshop surveys to find out what really benefits teenage girls in teaching online skills. This can result in more and/or better action and curricula; certainly our pilot series will help us figure out room for improvement. We have already learned a lot and it is a very rewarding way to do research.