Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Boldly Go Unbiased!

Maybe it is because I'm a feminist, or because I've experienced decades of gender bias in the sciences, or because as a science songwriter, I work diligently to be gender sensitive and inclusive in my lyrics, I don't know why, but when I came across explicitly gender biased lyrics in a kid's science song yesterday, I got pissed and had to take action. Monty Harper is a children's science songwriter and performer who is doing good work in science outreach to kids in Oklahoma where he is based. I learned about him yesterday when I received an email he posted to a listserv of science songsters requesting financial support for a CD music project he is working on "Songs from the Science Frontiers" featuring his original songs about science research in Oklahoma. The project sounds worthy of support and I was even more impressed with his using the online funding service Kickstarter to try to fund the production costs. I was ready to click and fund, until I listened to the sample song, "Ain't it Beautiful, " a cute diddy about USDA scientists in Oklahoma trying to combat the Russian wheat aphid which is a major pest worldwide of wheat, barley, and other cereal crops. The gender bias was in the hook:

Ain't it beautiful; Ain't it clever
Ain't it just about the best news ever
How science feeds our global needs
When man and nature work together

Man and nature? Just hearing and seeing that antiquated generic gender biased word representing all humanity made my stomach turn. This is a new song. This song was not written in 1955 before civil rights or gender bias and equity issues became part of our common social knowledge. So I contacted Mr. Harper and told him I was interested in his project and possibly supporting it but that I had an issue with his gender biased lyrics and suggested that he change the lyrics to be more gender neutral. After all, girls and women are at least half of the global population and girls and women are severely underrepresented in the sciences, it seems like a no brainer to try to be as inclusive in educational lyrics as possible. Why not change the lyric to "When humans and nature work together" or use the term 'people' or 'we.' Mr. Harper was as resilient as the modified wheat grain. He replied:

Unfortunately our language has gender bias built into it. The word
"man" in "Ain't It Beautiful" is meant in the sense of "mankind." I
think most people get that....I'm not sure using the word equates to perpetuating a bias.

Well Mr Harper, scientific research would suggest otherwise. In a quick online search I found a study on gender bias in the english language which concluded:

This evidence demonstrates that the use of "generic" masculine and even other grammatically neutral terms in effect serves to exclude women from the English language. The resulting masculine bias in our language reflects and reinforces the pattern of male dominance in society.

We need to err on the side of perpetuating inclusion and not exclusion in education and especially in the sciences. In my opinion it is lame and sexist to continue to use such outdated and biased lyrics in a science song for kids! I can't support a project that perpetuates gender bias in any form. Look, even Star Trek the Next Generation changed the famous final frontier motto from:

" boldly go where no MAN has gone before."
" boldly go where no ONE has gone before."

Star Trek is so universally inclusive, "one" includes ALIENS!!!! We should aspire to be as inclusive with our species.

Mr. Harper, please modify your lyrics so they are gender neutral and inclusive so that all children can be inspired and included in the final frontier of science. That is a project I can and will support.