Earlier this year, I went to the annual "Ada Lovelace Day" lectures at Imperial College. There, a succession of impressive ladies demonstrated that women are perfectly capable of participating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths/Medicine) careers.
We all nodded dutifully - and applauded the women who had pushed back the boundaries of science and science communication.
There was a collective intake of breath. Is this what people want for their daughters? Not to be the next Madam Curie, but merely to be Mrs Mopp the office char?
As a society, do we stifle ambition at birth by saying to girl children "Cleaning is the profession for you, m'dear!"?
I'm not so sure. Children like imitating adults and adult work. While it's true that most of the cleaning toys are associated with girls, there are some aimed at boys.
If a child wants to imitate what their parent are doing, should we prevent that?
We also have to accept that some people will become cleaners. There's nothing shameful about doing honest and useful work. Not everybody gets to be an astronaut.
It was the psychologist Stephen Pinker, I think, who coined the phrase "the how to be a human kit". We tell children stories and give them toys which socialise them into our world. Toys which are meant to teach the virtues we value in society. Cleaning is a social good. We need people to make life nice and tidy.
Finally, how do you create a child's toy that represents some of the more aspirational careers? It's easy to make a doctor's uniform - but what does "My First Web Design Toolkit" look like? There's no "Junior Lawyer" toys, nor "Petro-chemical Engineering Starter Kits" that I know of.
That said, I'm fully behind Pink Stinks' campaign against the rigid genderisation of children's toys. We have to be careful not to stifle children's imagination and potential.
I guess what I'm trying to do is find where the line is between "You're only good enough to be a cleaner" and "You can do anything you want - including being a cleaner."
This is further complicated by the power dynamic between domestic servants and their employers. The French psychologist Pascale Molinier wrote a wonderful paper which I found in The Commoner called "Of Feminists and Their Cleaning Ladies". In it she describes the tension of being a feminist and outsourcing traditional female domestic roles to other women:
... [T]he relationship with the cleaner displays a psychological tension between the desire to be served without needing to think about it – in which we find what Joan Tronto refers to as the "irresponsibility of privileged people" – and the desire to create a reciprocal link which "domesticates" this relationship.
This tension is not specific to the relationship between female employers and their domestic employees, it interrogates our relationship with care more widely, in that we all benefit from it.
P. Molinier, Of Feminists and their Cleaning Ladies: caught between the reciprocity of care and the desire for depersonalisation,
Multitudes 2009/3-4, no. 37-38, p. 113-121
It was quite obvious that the audience (myself included) felt disgust at the thought of promoting domestic work as a valid career path to a young girl. I wonder if part of that disgust was cognitive dissonance around the desire to be served and have a clean environment, and the crushing realisation that necessitates the restriction of someone's ambition so that they may fulfil the role for us? That domestic work is somehow seen as a desirable form of subjugation?
That's enough feminist theory for now. I took a look at toy cleaning trolleys on Amazon and the results weren't pretty. If this blog were a Tumblr, it'd all be like: