Last week Verizon released a new commercial called Inspire Her Mind. The commercial is part of a campaign to engage more women and girls in the STEM fields.
Usually, I cannot stand commercials. They tend employ overused tropes and sexualize women, but this one is different. The new Verizon commercial features a girl named Samantha as she grows up. Initially, she is curious about her world and about sciences, but her well-meaning parents give her gender-conforming messages. She is told not to get her dress dirty while at the beach, that her science project, which she’s clearly passionate about, is out of control, and that she should let her brother use the drill for the rocket she is building so that she does not get hurt. By the end of the commercial, Samantha is no longer passionate about science.
The commercial ends by pointing out that 66 percent of 4th grade girls like science and math, but only 18 percent of college engineering majors are female. Society determines gender roles, not biology. But society, according to B. F. Skinner’s Social Learning Theory, plays a huge role in determining behavior. Children begin to “do gender” at a very young age; by five years old, they have a clear concept of not only masculinity and femininity, but also which category they fit into. This binary system is incredibly limiting.
Not only do not all children fit cleanly into one category or the other, but for those children that do fit into one gender or the other, the prescribed roles may still not be the best fit. This is the problem that Verizon is highlighting. A society that makes valuable professional opportunities unavailable to half the population is hurting not only the kids who are no longer considering all the options, but also the society at large that is systematically eliminating a significant portion of the available talent.
Verizon’s new commercial is one of many attempts to deconstruct gender roles, and no doubt it will not be the last. These roles are extremely dangerous because they limit opportunities, disenfranchise anyone who does not conform, and create a power dynamic that puts men in charge, even giving men the right to try to control women’s bodies. Inspire Her Mind is about a lot more than encouraging girls to stay involved with the sciences. It’s about making it safe for girls to chase their dreams.