A case study of ‘pinkification’ as a failing strategy for diversity

Written by  //  September 4, 2012  //  Alumni, Faculty, Staff, Students  //  7 Comments

Guest post by Mihaela Vorvoreanu, assistant professor of computer graphics technology and technology leadership & innovation

I came across this story about the brilliantly hilarious criticism that BiC, the pen company, encountered upon launching a line of pastel-colored pens “for her.”

The product has almost 500 reviews on amazon.com, and I’ll let them speak for themselves by sampling a couple:

“I picked up these pens to fill out a job application as a research scientist, but the only thing they would write on were the subscription cards for Good Housekeeping and Cosmo in the lobby (but not Newsweek or Time- which at first I thought was weird, but after looking at the pen for a minute, I realized I was better off without those dense, hard topics). I eventually got one to work on an application for a nanny, so thank you Bic for giving me proper direction in my career!”


“Before I purchase such graceful, dainty, gender appropriate pens I want to be completely confident that I will still think math is hard. My role model, Barbie, used to say that she thought math is hard and I don’t want to stray from her guidance. What has been your experience?”

The story is amusing, but also very interesting because it points out society’s response to a strategy I like to call “pinkification.” I am sometimes worried that our college’s diversity efforts may fall into the pinkification trap.

Why are people (men and women alike) so upset with some cheap plastic pens? Because they reinforce stereotypical gender roles. We are fortunate to live in a society where individuals are free to become who they want, rather than follow cultural prescriptions of gender-appropriate roles and jobs. We have excellent airplane pilots who are women and men who dream of becoming flight attendants. And it’s about time we stop marveling at the “weirdness” of it all — this is the new normal.

Without claiming that genders are identical, I beg that we be wary of pinkification as a strategy for increasing diversity in our college. Ideas such as:

  • offering “easy” classes because women don’t like the “technical” ones;
  • changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (What, men don’t? Not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people);
  • putting Hello Kitty posters on the walls or the interior decor equivalent;

… are all troublesome because they manifest stereotypes and biases about gender roles and preferences. Rather than defining gender roles, why not create a kind, respectful and encouraging environment where everyone can feel free to manifest their full personality and potential?

So, what can we do instead? I, of course, do not have the solution to such a complex problem. But I can make some suggestions, and hope you can add to them in the comments below.

Maybe we can start becoming aware of our own deep-seated ideas and biases (we all have them). As we notice our mind producing thoughts such as, “women typically don’t do well in this subject” (let’s call them women, not girls nor ladies), or “this woman is successful because of political alliances or luck”, maybe we can stop and consider where the idea comes from; what is the root of the problem; and how this opinion manifests in subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors that actually influence women’s performance. What if we try to play around with the thought that “all students who work hard can excel in this subject, regardless of biological sex or cultural gender” and let that idea transpire through our subtle verbal and non-verbal behaviors?

Maybe we can begin to consider how the toys we give children teach them about what they are supposed to like and be good at; that little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus. There are many subtle and not so subtle behaviors that communicate to young, impressionable people what we expect of them and contribute to shaping their sense of self.

Maybe becoming aware of our own beliefs, of how they manifest through behavior, and how these subtle behaviors influence students’ sense of who they should be is one little step towards creating change from within.

What other ideas do you have?

7 Comments on "A case study of ‘pinkification’ as a failing strategy for diversity"

  1. Erin Bowen September 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm · Reply

    Outstanding, couldn’t agree more! I’d much rather see us focus on the uniqueness of each individual rather than on large-scale assumptions about the types of programs & courses that would supposedely appeal to various groups. A true respect for diversity in COT should go far beyond group membership to embrace the unique character of every person.
    Plus, I really don’t care for pink.

    • Mihaela October 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm · Reply

      Thank you for the comment, Erin!

  2. Keith Russell September 8, 2012 at 12:43 pm · Reply

    Anyone who can say, “little girls are taught to want to be princesses in pink tutus” either has not raised children, or wasn’t paying any attention to them. Sex roles arise out of genetics just like body shapes and organs do. I’m shocked to see anyone associated with an insitute of higher learning deny this basic and obvous fact.

    • Mihaela October 4, 2012 at 2:21 pm · Reply

      Keith, I am just as shocked at your comment as you must be at mine. Years of research have explored the difference between sex (biological) and gender (culturally constructed). I would point you, for a start to the book “Sex and gender: An introduction.”

      Moreover, research from both psychology and social psychology point to the impact culture and significant others have on the development of the self itself. Meade’s symbolic interactionism is just one example of a well-known theory, but books such as “The Psychology of the Social Self” review more similar research.

      I am afraid that observing one child and her pink tutu is insufficient evidence. Are we absolutely sure that there are no external sources in society (friends, school, TV) that have subtly taught that child that pink tutus are to be liked? How do we explain, then, that in cultures other than those dominated by Western media, pink tutus are not objects of desire for little girls?

      Keith, I have not raised children, but I have read the research. A long tradition of research has established, beyond a doubt, that gender roles are a cultural, social construction. We make them up, we teach them to our children, and we have the power to change them.

      If gender roles were biological, does this imply that all the women in CoT should put down the books and go back in the kitchen where they belong?

  3. Laura Jones October 3, 2012 at 10:48 pm · Reply

    I love this! I can’t tell you how many times I tell people not to “pink it up” when they try to encourage girls in STEM fields. Lego is just as bad as Bic. Pinkification is the same as dumbing things down, in my opinion.

    • Mihaela October 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm · Reply

      Hi Laura,

      Yes, I like your observation about Lego. It teaches boys what they can and are supposed to do (not nursing!) and girls what they cannot and are not supposed to do.

      Thank you for the comment.

  4. Kurt L January 22, 2013 at 4:24 pm · Reply

    Nice article. I particularly found this part interesting:

    “changing the curriculum because women care about making a difference in society (What, men don’t? Not the students I encounter… when I ask them what they want to be when they grow up, most of them say that, in one way or another, they want to help people)”

    I don’t doubt your experience, but I’ve found many students (including myself earlier in life) are interested in pursuing technical careers for the technical challenges per se. They enjoy solving puzzles, making complex systems work, and becoming masters of the domain. Particularly in areas with little practical application (e.g. CS theory) or consideration of human needs (e.g. networking), there seems to be a genuine lack of interest or concern with societal impact, or helping people.

    This leads me to a few thoughts. First, I think many people end up with the goal of helping others, but it’s a journey that takes time. Students may be initially attracted to the technical challenges, but this evolves into a desire to apply them to solving human problems. Other students may come from the opposite point of view: they want to help people, and this leads them to technical careers as a powerful means to do so.

    Programs that enable the latter seem to me like a good idea: we want more students in technical careers, and we especially want the ones who want to improve society. But the sticking point is that these groups might be gendered. I believe there is research showing that women are more likely to fit into this latter group. Hence, a variety of programs for broadening participation in computing try to leverage this “make the world a better place” motivation. Georgia Tech’s computational media and threads programs are one example where the goal was explicitly to increase diversity through an emphasis on social impact. I think the Human-Centered Computing PhD program at Georgia Tech (which I recently completed) takes a similar approach, though I’m not sure if diversity was an explicit goal. Nevertheless, the program–which positions itself as a more human-centered alternative to the traditional Computer Science PhD program–is more than 50% women. In my lab, the professor and 4/5 PhD students were female. Something interesting is going on there, and I appreciate this opportunity to ponder and discuss it.

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