Tomboys: Sex Stereotypes About Women in Science and Technology

The experiences we have and the ideas we formulate as children can and do have a tremendous impact on what we do with our lives as adults. One thing that we studied during this course was the differences between toys that boys play with and those that girls play with. When little boys are given things to play with like chemistry sets and erector sets, they are given tools to develop skills like mechanical ability and spatial perception. More importantly, in my opinion, this sets up a stereotype about what activities are suitable for boys and which activities are suitable for girls. Just as boys who play with dolls are seen as being unusual, little girls who do "boy things" and play with boys toys are seen as being weird and are therefore discouraged from doing so.

When I first began researching this project I was looking for information on tomboys. I was hoping to answer the following question: How does having the label of a tomboy as a child effect what career choices a woman makes as an adult? It was my belief that if young girls think of tomboys in a negative light, girls who are labeled tomboys by their peers will be discouraged from engaging in activities that perpetuates that image of them. If these activities include playing with legos and building forts, then women who may otherwise have gone into technological fields like engineering and computer science will be deterred by the fact that these fields are sterotypically male.

An initial literature search yielded disappointing results. The articles which I found fell into basically two categories: first-person narratives about growing up as a tomboy in magazines like Redbook and Southern Living and a few scattered articles from academic journals about sex-role identification in children and teenagers. None of the articles from the latter category were published after 1980.

One of the more interesting articles which I found was entitled "Masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and cognitive performance: A meta-analysis," and was published in volume 100 of Psychological Bulletin. In this study, Margaret Signorella and Wesley Jamison evaluated the hypothesis set forth by SC Nash in the 1975 article "The relationship among sex-role stereotyping, sex-role preference, and the sex difference in spatial visualization." Nash found that sixth and ninth graders who showed a preference for being male performed better on tests evaluating spatial relations, and she proposed that children will perform better on cognitive tasks typically associated with the gender which matches their personal self-concepts. Signorella and Jamison found that high masculine-low feminine self-concept scores were associated with better performance on math and spatial tasks for both girls and boys.

Both mathematical and spatial skills are necessary for technical careers such as engineering and computer science, and these results suggests that girls who show a preference for male activities may have the skills necessary for pursing one of these career paths. This study looked at children in the early stages of adolescence, however, which is a time when mathematical abilities, as measured by standardized tests, are pretty much equal between genders. The effects encountered in high school, both academic and social, do not begin to alter girls' performances until they are in their older teens.

This study also did not look into the opinions other children have about girls who prefer male activities. In later adolescence, issues about "fitting in" have a greater importance in children's lives, and ultimately have a greater effect on the decisions they make and the images that they portray for themselves.

An interesting study I came across which dealt specifically with the effects in higher levels of education was a 1986 book entitled Girls Into Science and Technology, henceforth abbreviated GIST. This book described the GIST project implemented in the United Kingdom between 1979 and 1984. Through programs such as mentoring progr ¿akers, gender-specific technology and science clubs and gender segregated classrooms, the investigators hoped to find ways of encouraging more girls to enroll in science and technical classes, and thus keep them in the pipeline a while longer.

One of the things which they hoped to accomplish was to alter the stereotypes which children have about the appropriateness of certain activities and occupations for different genders. At the beginning of the study, they found that boys were more likely to agree with the statement "girls who want to be scientists are a bit peculiar." Overall, however, girls who aspired to male careers were viewed in a positive light:

Girls who are 'tomboyish' or aspire to male jobs are perceived as aspiring towards greater status or power, in a patriarchal society. It is far less acceptable for boys to be 'cissy' or to wish to carry out 'women's work'. (110)


Children whose mothers performed household chores like fixing the car were less likely to have sex stereotypes. Those who thought that science was a pleasurable subject to study and believed it to be beneficial to society were also less likely to view it as gender stereotyped.

At the end of the study, more girls enrolled at the test schools enrolled in science and technical crafts classes than girls at the control schools. When asked to rate the suitability of jobs for men and women, there was less sex-stereotyping than they had seen four years earlier. Children were more enthusiastic about jobs that they had previously said were for opposite sex. Girls in test schools were more likely to specify scientific or technical career goals, and they were less likely to want a husband who was smarter than they were. Overall, the image of science had become less favorable over the course of the study, but there was less of a decrease in the test schools than in the control schools.

Teachers and guidance counsellors were often barriers to the students, both consciously and unconsciously. They were more likely to belief in biological determinism of academic ability, and they were more likely to have traditional views towards sex roles and stereotypes about careers. The most successful schools raised teachers' awareness of this by having discussions about gender and sex stereotypes within the classroom. Not only did the teachers benefit from an increased awareness of the effect stereotypes can have on the way we think, the students learned to be more conscious of the fact that these stereotypes existed.

One of the interesting proposals the authors of this study put forth was the idea of combing shop and home economics into one class. Therefore, everyone would have to learn about both disciplines. Also, no one would be perceived as being unusual for wanting to take a class that was not usually taken by people of their gender.

In order to augment the literature I found, I decided to interview female Engineering and Computer Science majors about their views towards tomboys and the gender stereotypes of their particular field. There is one obvious flaw to this method of data collection and that is I was only interviewing students who had successfully made it through the pipeline to college level study. There was no way for me to find, for example, Literature majors who had as a child been interested in machines and tools, but were discouraged because of being labelled a tomboy.

One of the most interesting things I noticed was that none of the women I interviewed thought of themselves as tomboys while they were growing up. They would say this to me right after telling me that as a child they enjoyed playing with Legos and helping their fathers fix the car, and that all of their friends were boys, because they did not enjoy the activities that their female peers engaged in. Several did mention that they were often labelled as a 'nerd' or 'geek'.

All of the women I talked to indicated some experience with tools and machines as a child, and they all had at least one parent who was in the sciences. The Engineers had encountered more gender stereotypes in college than the Computer Science majors. Some of the engineers found that their professors felt that the women in their classes were more meticulous than men, and this led to situations where, for example, it was assumed that the woman in the lab group would be the one taking notes, because their handwriting was better. As a result, men were indirectly encouraged to be the active ones in the lab experiments while women were encouraged to be the passive onlookers. The most extreme example of gender stereotyping related to me was one case where a woman was told by a member of the Dean's staff that because she enjoyed working with power tools she had 'penis envy.'

The women I interviewed seemed to agree that the stereotypes about women would begin to fade as more and more women engineers had daughters, and a new generation of women with female role models began entering college. This idea about the gradual shift in beliefs that is currently going on probably explains why I was not able to find any current research on "tomboyism.' in academic journals. Ideas about gender, particularly for women, perhaps not as much for men, have become increasingly fluid in recent years. Women who play sports and enjoy 'male' activities are not only no longer seen as unusual, but are actually seen as having the preferred image. Many advertising firms have been specifically marketing the "tomboy look", because that image of women is now the 'in' image. Though women of my generation have grown up with the word "tomboy' in our vocabularies, perhaps the next generation of young girls will not even realize that playing sports and fixing cars represents gender deviancy on their part.

Amy Harrington

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last updated 9/8/98