Somehow I came to possess a series of booklets that were produced by the public relations department at General Motors between 1939 and 1941. Most of them provide education on various aspects of an automobile’s workings. They are boldly optimistic and beautifully illustrated.
I tried to determine the purpose of their creation, but came up short. One possibility is the booklets were sent to Ford owners to convince them to buy GM, a practice common to the car company during this time period. But their tone is more informative than persuasive. Another possibility is they were prepared for distribution during the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
That year, GM sponsored an exhibit called Futurama. People waited in line for hours to experience it. Visitors were moved through a vision of the future while a narrator relayed what could be expected in coming years. The pamphlet I have from the same year, titled To New Horizons, has the same oracle tone. But in all that GM could see, the company could not envision a future where more women would participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. ”The only secret of successful research is men,” the pamphlet claims.
My first thought when I read this was, I am glad I don’t live in 1939. Then I remembered a recent study.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tested 470,000 students in 65 developed nations. In the majority of countries 15 year old girls earned higher scores on a science exam than boys. The United States was not among them. The US came in 62nd place, only in Liechtenstein and Columbia do girls score worse than boys in science than they do in the US. In a New York Times report of the study an OECD representative states, “Different countries offer different incentives for learning math and science.” What social incentive do we offer American girls?
Last month I was talking to my neighbor’s 10 year old daughter on the way home from the bus. I asked her if she was planning to participate in an after school math program with my son. She replied, “No, girls don’t do that kind of thing.”
Now, I know for a fact that girls do and that many of those girls are her friends. So it really threw me to hear her say that. Where had she picked up this line of thinking?
My neighbor’s kid is smart and funny, the type who seems to have the confidence and ability to do anything. She is stuck in a cul-de-sac filled with boys. When the weather is warm, and all the kids are forced outside to play, I look out the window and smile as she organizes a “campfire” with spare wood and folding chairs, jumps on a pogo stick while playing the violin, or rides down a steep driveway on a skateboard topped with a boogie board. She never seemed to be the kind of kid who would proclaim there is anything girls don’t do.
Her parents are both engineers. Her mom is an electrical engineer who works a few hours a day from home while the kids are at school. Math is a priority in her household; her mom creates practice exams before every test. When the third grade was studying electricity she happily relayed to the class what her mom had taught her about energy flowing through a circuit. This is the child whose reflex is to tell me, girls don’t do math?
The pamphlet by General Motors points out a cultural feedback that has been created in the United States. Considerable nationalism surrounds the technology developed in this country. The automobile is rooted here. This is the only country to have engineered a manned moon landing. It was the first country to produce, and the only country to deploy, an atomic bomb. All of these achievements are associated with the minds of men; therefore, you have to be a man to have the mind to achieve. This belief is an unfortunate outcome of the success of our nation.
The ghosts of our past are difficult to exorcise. It is going to take a long time until “Girls don’t do that kind of thing” is eradicated from our national vocabulary. A child, like my neighbor’s, who is swimming in opportunity to pursue a STEM career is still influenced by a generation who thought the only secret of successful research is men.