A Careful Eye on Gender Messaging

Over my past 8 years as a Unit Guider, I’ve taken my girls to a variety of events, outings, and sleepovers – horseback riding, snowshoeing, wilderness camping, heritage villages, wood working workshops, ceramics making, and many more. A common thread, however, has been that I ensure a balance in what some would call traditional “girl” activities and traditional “boy” ones. I want my girls to be able to swing a hammer, sew a button, test limits, explore outdoors, enjoy crafts, and learn new and exciting things.  I want young girls to see the things we do in Brownies and Girl Guides in general, as life skills that promote self-confidence and inspire each girl to reach whatever goal she sets. Yes, a tall order – but instilling girls with the idea that they can do and be whatever they want and not pigeon-hole activities, objectives, and aspirations by gender is one of the main reasons I believe in Girl Guides and volunteer my time as a leader.

As a communication professional, I also believe messaging is very important. We don’t hear direct things like, “girls don’t do that,” or “girls can’t do this,” as much anymore (although sadly, I can’t say it never happens). The messaging these days is far more subtle and, at times, more undermining.  And often presented unconscientiously – as was the case recently with an organization that I believe is normally very supportive and encouraging of girls.

One of my girls’ favourite outings has always been the Ontario Science Centre Sleepover.  If you’ve never been before, I can tell you it is a fabulous program. There are science demonstrations, an IMAX movie showing and – best of all – you and the girls get to explore and sleep right in the Science Centre exhibits. Until very recently, I’ve had nothing but praise for the program, organization, and message presented by the Ontario Science Centre.  Until, that is, I received their promotional material for this year’s sleepover schedule.

The description of offered programs read, in part:

SPACE ODYSSEY: Families, Beavers, Cubs, Scouts and all other groups
Calling all junior aerospace engineers and mission specialists! Come to a fun-filled night of space exploration. Blast off for an out-of-this-world overnight experience!

ASTRONOMY ACES: Sparks, Brownies & Guides
Reach for the stars and become a real Astronomy Ace as you gaze out at our galaxy and explore the night sky! Cap off your cool cosmic adventure by dancing your heart out at the DJ/PJ party!

The message in this announcement appears to be somewhat belittling of girls’ ambitions. The (mostly) boys’ groups are described as junior aerospace engineers and mission specialists; the girls are gazing at the stars. It implies that the groups with the predominately male participants are more likely destined for serious scientific careers. The girls get a cool DJ/PJ party…. although, actually, the DJ/PJ party is included in both programs.

I read the material over a number of times, stewed a bit, and finally decided to contact the Ontario Science Centre with my concerns.  I expressed my disappointment in their messaging and asked if the groups were, in fact, being presented with different programming.

Kudos to the Science Centre – they responded quickly and explained the root of the different messaging.  An excerpt from their response:

“When we develop the Sleepover activities, we use the Scouts Canada Badge Requirements; and the Girl Guide Badge Requirements as tools to create the content that will be most suitable to their needs.  The Girl Guides’ badge is called “Astronomy”; the Scouts badge is called “Space Exploration”.  Because we often also use wording similar to the organizations to reflect this alignment, the two themes are named differently.  This is the reason why, and the only reason why, there are two distinct themes.”

The response went on to say that “We hope our experiences inspire curiosity for all our visitors, whether they choose to take the path of a backyard stargazer or an aerospace engineer.  We know both boys and girls have the capacity to be either.”

When I read the explanation about the different themes, it did make a certain amount of sense and I wondered if Girl Guides needed to share responsibility in this for promoting star-gazing over space exploration. Then I thought…hey, wait a minute…”star gazing” is more than just looking up at the sky. Research astronomers make fascinating discoveries about the unknown reaches of space and, by extension, the origins of the universe and life here on Earth.  The astounding images we’ve seen from the Hubble space telescope would never have come to light without the knowledge and dedication of astronomers. Astronomy involves more than a backyard telescope; it is massive relay alignments, observatories, space-based lenses and transmitters, and supercomputer analysis. None of this is reflected in the Science Centre program description.

Despite there being separate badge programs, the issue remains that the boys’ program was career-based and exciting while the girls’ description was passive and emphasized a dance party that is, in fact, also included with the boys’ program.

If I were to rewrite the text for them, it might go something like this:

ASTRONOMY ACES: Sparks, Brownies & Guides

Reach for the stars exploring galaxies as an Astronomy Ace. Find out how research astronomers are unraveling the mysteries of the Universe and making new discoveries in the far reaches of space.

With the help and support of Girl Guides of Canada, we again went back to the Science Centre with this idea and suggested even that perhaps they may want to include a mention about Canadian Astronaut and Honourary Lifetime Girl Guide Member Roberta Bondar to maintain a career emphasis parity in the program descriptions.

I’m pleased to say that the Ontario Science Centre was again responsive to my and Girl Guides’ concerns.  They agreed to modify the email-based communications going out about the Sleepover program; however, printed materials had already been produced and could not be changed at this time.

The final promotional content that was re-released to their email mailing list reads as follows:

ASTRONOMY ACES: Sparks, Brownies & Guides (girls only events)

Reach for the stars and become a real Astronomy Ace as you gaze out at our galaxy and explore the night sky! Be inspired by stories of the adventures of Canadian Astronaut and Girl Guides of Canada Honourary Member Dr. Roberta Bondar. Cap off your cool cosmic endeavour by dancing your heart out at the DJ / PJ party!

I am grateful to the Ontario Science Centre for their willingness to listen to concerns and take corrective measures. I can’t say that I’m 100 per cent satisfied with the final copy – the dance party reference remains (unnecessarily as the dance party description is also included in the “both programs receive…” section of the release) and it still feels a bit passive with the “star gazing” description. I am pleased to see the Dr. Bondar reference but I’m unclear as to whether the OSC has actually modified the planned program to now include information about Roberta Bondar or if it was simply added to the promotional material.

It’s a work in progress but thinking critically and speaking up about this sort of subtle and unconscious gender bias is important for ourselves as woman and the girls we mentor.

By guest blogger and Community Guider Jannene MacNeil. Jannene is a professional writer with a personal interest in science and a published book on telecommunications technology.  She is a Community Guider and has volunteered at the Brownie and Guide unit levels for almost a decade.  Her unit, the 29th Burlington Brownies, will be attending this year’s Science Centre Sleepover program, which will hopefully inspire the girls with scientific curiosity and a drive for exploration.


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3 Responses to A Careful Eye on Gender Messaging

  1. Amy Porteous says:

    The new version is far better than the old. Good for you! This is a great post, too.

  2. This is fantastic. I’m so glad you took a critical look, and then acted in a positive way. Thanks and congrats.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Good for you taking a stand and approaching the Science Centre about your concerns. That in and of itself, is something you need to share with your girls.
    Job well done!

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