But I took the time to listen to the full video here, to get the full quotes, including improving the accuracy of the transcription of what was quoted in The Atlantic — which seemed too eager to enthuse over Gillibrand, calling her "a refreshing departure from feminism," which sounded like partisan claptrap to me. If a Democrat says something that would be called sexist if a Republican said it, it's my business to call bullshit.
But I really don't care about how The Atlantic presented it. Let me present it accurately, with full-length quotes. This matters, because there's so much pressure both to acknowledge gender difference and to deny it, and Gillbrand spoke with some courage and cogency.
First, at about 22:00, the issue is how to get girls to go into STEM majors, rather than the "helping professions" (which is supposedly important because it might boost women's income). Gillibrand becomes charmingly quite animated describing her son, at age 5, playing with a toy train, "building transportation networks," while his female friend Sadie put little people next to the trains and invented stories about where all the people were going. This gets laughs of approval from the audience.
"Oftentimes women and girls focus on people, on relationships, on communities, on collaborative activities. It's almost how we're naturally wired, more often than not. And boys, more often than not, are wired to want to build, to build things that go fast, to build things that go high. That's what little boys do. And so, it's not surprising that a lot of boys will go into math, science, engineering, because those are the tools they need to build, build all the things they dream of flying and riding and driving."The audience laughs with delight. There's warmth and connection in this very common parental acknowledgement that boys are boys and girls are girls... at least their boys and girls really are. Somehow, when the topic is one's own child — especially where there's pride that your boy turned out to exemplify boyishness or your girl turned out to exemplify girlishness — all the abstract commitment to equality of the sexes flies out the window. But that makes Gillibrand seem nonideological and grounded in reality, and her connection to the audience is palpable.
"So the goal for educators is to teach that young girl, you know, if you're really good at math, but if you stick with math, or you stick with science and engineering, you could figure out how to have clean air, clean water for your community so your cousin's asthma is not as bad. A little girl in that situation will say, 'Oh, I would love to do that,' because she could then put her mind around solving a problem about a community or person that she loves. And so, that's all you have to do to a young girl."It's a big old stereotype that girls care about people, and I don't really believe that you could lure such girl stereotypes into STEM majors by explaining that science and technology are used to benefit people. If these stereotypical girls want to interact with other human beings, why not let them do just that? And why think that the boys who want to "build things" only want fly and ride and drive those things? Maybe boys want to make things because it's their way of showing love for other people. Why portray them as self-involved and why not also portray girls as having a selfish interest in activities that entail being around other people if that's what they want?
Maybe if Kirsten Gillibrand sat down with me for a few hours and we talked about all of this, she'd make complete sense. She's a politician, and she needs to boil it down into a form that's reasonably simple and palatable. In trying to do that, she might have gotten into trouble here. I don't know.
Later, Gillibrand receives a question from the audience, and this is the part that's highlighted at that Atlantic item. This happens at about 30:00 in the video, where a man — and I assume Gillibrand really thought this guy was annoying and a waste of her time — wants to know what can be done about "uptalk" (that is, ending a declarative sentence so it sounds like a question).
Gillibrand pauses for a long time before beginning:
"The interesting thing about women is we often are very collaborative in nature. We generally prefer to be well-liked. We like for people around us to be happy."The interviewer jokes: "What's wrong with you?" She continues, with some glee:
"It's what we do. We are happy people, and we like everyone to be happy around us. It's some skills we learn often as being mothers and daughters, that we are the ones who feed everyone at the table. We are the ones that make sure our kids are happy and healthy. It's the kind of work we typically do."Notice that this isn't about what is innate. It's about what is learned in particular roles that often fall to women. (There's no discussion — not that there is time — of the men who step up and take responsibility for family happiness and for cooking the family meals.)
"And so, there's this issue of likeability. So, for a lot of young women..."Note that she says "a lot," not "all."
"... they want to be well-liked. And so, they may often feel insecure, that if they're too aggressive or too pushy, too declarative, they won't be well-liked."Wanting to be well-liked is a central human struggle. It affects men and women, perhaps women more than men, but it's fair to say that a woman who doesn't put effort into being nice is likely to be judged by many people to fall short of an expectation that women, specifically, are supposed to be nice, caring, empathetic. Men can be adjudged assholes, but the line where a woman crosses over into bitchdom is closer than the line where a man is an asshole.
"And so, I encourage the women that work for me to be authoritative, to state their opinions, to hold their ground. And if they want to do it in a nice way, God bless them. I prefer to work in a nice way too."Come on! Give the lady credit for some political savoir faire. She's looking for an elegant exit. She folksily mentions God.
"But they have to know that they are responsible — for their job, for their opinions, for what they have to do — and I try to encourage women that work for me to add that professional veneer, that there's a certain standard of professionalism that is required for success in business in general, and so to meet those standards, you have to speak less like a young girl and more like a young aspiring woman, more professional. So you just work at it. But it’s part of our nature, and it's not a bad part of our nature, it's just part of our nature. And sometimes you have to learn skills."Nature. It's real. Should she be raked over the coals for saying there's something called "Our Nature"? A Republican would be burnt at the stake!