In 2019, I joined the team developing ASTC’s IF/THEN® Gender Representation Toolkit as an advisor. I am an independent exhibit designer who also writes and consults with museums on matters of gender and sexuality and I was happy to lend my expertise. This toolkit is part of ASTC’s IF/THEN® Gender Equity project and its aim is to help science museum teams quantify visual representations of women/girls and men/boys in their exhibits and map their distribution across the sector.
The toolkit project is funded by the IF/THEN® Initiative, which aims to “open [young girls’] eyes to STEM.” One way to help girls feel a sense of belonging in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning environment—like a science museum—is to populate that space with visual representations of girls and women doing STEM activities. Seeing examples of women in STEM can also help boys see girls as their equals and help steer parents and teachers away from discouraging girls from pursuing their interests in STEM. Research suggests girls are just as interested in STEM topics as boys as children, but, as adults, women pursue degrees and careers in STEM at lower rates because they are made to feel unwelcome by their teachers, parents, fellow students, and colleagues. I have a lot of thoughts about what I see as misplaced blame on girls and women for their own imposter syndrome and the capitalist motivations behind the STEM career obsession. All that aside, my interest in the IF/THEN® Gender Equity project is grounded in a belief that people of all genders should have a truly equal opportunity to pursue their interests.
The toolkit development team spent a lot of time discussing how to accurately quantify gender simply by looking at depictions of people in illustrations or photographs. As a genderqueer person, it was especially important to me that we not suggest to data collectors that the gender identities of people in photographs are perceptible to the viewer. Gender is an identity category that does not necessarily align with anatomy or presentation like hair and clothing. The only way to truly know someone’s gender identity is to ask them. In the end, we decided that visual gender representation is grounded in perception and so we asked toolkit users to count people not as men or women but as perceived as men or women to emphasize this important point. We used intentional language and explanations for our colleagues implementing the toolkit to help them disentangle the concept of gender identity from perceived gender. Ultimately, this approach was about how visitors would perceive the genders of people depicted in the exhibits.
Another thing we did to make the toolkit more inclusive was to add a way to capture depictions of gender nonconforming people: people perceived as men with feminine gender presentations like makeup or a dress, or people perceived as women with masculine gender presentations like a short haircut or a necktie. Though not all queer people present as gender nonconforming and not all gender nonconforming people are queer, counting gender nonconforming people is one way to quantify representations of visible queerness. This additional tick box offered a way to attempt to account for people with genders beyond the woman/man binary.
My hope for the teams who implemented the tool at their science museums is that they not only got a better picture of representation of women and girls their own exhibits, but also had a chance to contemplate the meaning of gender and discuss it with their colleagues.
About the author
Margaret Middleton is an independent exhibit designer working at the intersection of design and social justice. They have a degree in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. Middleton developed the Family Inclusive Language Chart and consults with museums on implementing family inclusive practice. Their writing has been published in books including The Inclusive Museum Leader and Welcoming Young Children into the Museum, as well as in publications including the Journal of Museum Education, Exhibition, Dimensions, and Museum magazine. Margaret can be found on the web at margaretmiddleton.com and on Twitter @magmidd.