Hard Math for Girls: Only a Big Deal If You Say It's Not

5 years ago

Yesterday, I shared a link on Twitter and Facebook to Julia Magnusson's post about the latest Land's End catalog gaffe. And lo and behold! The power of social media! Land's End responded and asked if they could email me some background from their creative team. Sure! Please do explain why your catalog says math is hard on Chloe's backpack page and superheroes are tough on Matthew's! I'll bet that's some good reading!

To their credit, they immediately sent exactly what they promised. Here's the email in full.

First, thank you for reading! We realize how much information competes for your time.

When brainstorming the “tougher than long division” headline, our (coed) writing team asked themselves, What was tough when we were kids? Superheroes, sure. And homework. Especially math homework. And especially the long division part of math homework. That was the genesis of the headline.

We wrote the line on a page offering backpacks for boys and girls alike, thus weren’t thinking about gender. Indeed the merchandise V.P. behind this catalog is a woman, as are the catalog designer, the Creative Director, many of our backpack designers and most of our internal catalog reviewers. None questioned the line (and trust us, they question a lot of headlines!)

So we didn’t perceive a gender bias, but we’re sorry if some readers did. Absolutely no bias was intended, nor would any be tolerated around here.

On the subject of smart young men and women, have a look at the MadBox™ a group of teens recently invented for us: http://youtu.be/Afy7B0MVA00

Thanks once again for reading, and for joining the conversation. We will be sure to give consideration to your concern in future.

Your friends at Lands' End

And you know what? I LOVE Land's End. I've reviewed their swimwear and their outerwear on my review blog. I think their products are top-notch. I have no wish to vilify them, but I've got to say it: Land's End, you screwed up. So why did your email not say, "Dear Rita, WOW. We didn't intend for those lines of copy to go only the pages with Chloe instead of Matthew. We're totally embarrassed. Won't happen again -- thanks for pointing out our mistake."

I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."

Instead, I get "we didn't perceive a gender bias" and "there are females on our team and they didn't see anything wrong with it" and "here's a video of girls." Land's End, here's the sound of my head smashing into my desk: KAPOWEY!

My mother just left a while ago to take my eight-year-old daughter school shopping. She asked if I had any guidelines, and I said, "Please don't buy her anything that insinuates she's either brainless or trying to be sexy." And my mother said, "That shouldn't be too hard." And I said, "Not actually -- have you seen what they are marketing to eight-year-olds lately?"

And there you go, Land's End! One of my favorite brands! Long division is hard! For girls! With purple backpacks! WHAT ARE YOU DOING AND HOW DO YOU NOT SEE IT?

Yes, some readers perceived this as a gender bias, and it's a very big deal. Yesterday I caught my daughter watching a show in which one grown man told another he was crying like a little girl. That's still treated on television like a totally fine mainstream thing to say -- that to cry like a girl is the worst possible insult one could give another. Still! And it's stuff like hard-math-for-purple-backpacks jokes that allows those gender biases to continue to permeate our culture, our capitalism and our politics in the year 2012.

Don't tell me your female VP intended the purple Chloe backpacks for boys. Don't tell me your creative team includes females. I'm sure it does. And they were wrong. Just because women have ovaries doesn't mean women don't perpetuate gender stereotypes, too. We ALL need to STOP DOING THAT. We need to stop acting like women are over-reacting when we call out gender stereotypes in advertising, in the media and coming out of the mouths of our politicians, business leaders and radio hosts.

Here's the deal: It's not okay just because you employ women. It doesn't have to be that big of a deal -- if you apologize and admit that was really dumb, which it was -- but if you imply with your it's-okay-because-we-didn't-mean-it-that-way email it has to go from oops-copy-on-the-wrong-page to wow-gender-bias. That unintended bias happens all the time in institutional racism and sexism and we have to constantly check ourselves and look for what is wrong that is ingrained in the structure of our society so it doesn't continue happening. And you're not.

My gifted-program daughter loved math in kindergarten and now entering third grade says she's no good at it, even though she still gets high scores. Where the hell is she getting such an idea?


Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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