Caution: Tape May Trigger Poor Conclusions

by Eva St. Clair
December 06, 2019

A few weeks ago, we posted a picture of caution tape to Facebook:

For the caption, we wrote: 

Ummmm, so apparently "men working" caution tape is still a thing in 2019... 🤔🤔🤔

Wow, did the comments ever come rolling in!

"The real question is whether there were actually any women involved in this particular job and if there was, whether she cared what the tape said. I'm all for fair and equal, but I am so tired of the "I'll be offended for you" mentality.” - Rachel

“Someone a long time ago said "we need yellow tape to warn people that there is a work crew ahead. Work crews are comprised of men, so we will make a men working sign"

Years and years later, work crews are not comprised solely of men, so that person's decision no longer applies.

No panties in wads, no sticks in asses, just recognizing that "men working" should be updated to reflect actual working conditions and be inclusive. It doesn't need to be anything angry, just fix the damn tape to what it should say and go back to work.

Or you could get pissy and quit ordering from this company, I guess?? That's helpful and inclusive too? 🤷” -Tricia

“I cant worry about such things in my life. The caution tape I have is in English and Spanish should we all freak about that too?” - Anne

“You are getting way too feminist for me. I might stop ordering your clothes. Chill out.” -Coren

“There are many more important things than something so minuscule with absolutely no context to focus on. It is possible to live your life without being offended by minuscule things.” - Monica

"I guess when I see things like this, I just see the word "men" as meaning people. Like "mankind" 🤷‍♀️ it doesn't make me feel devalued or excluded." -Danielle

“Does this REALLY bother people? Like, seriously? 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔” - Cassey

“Why do we care? It's caution tape, heed caution and move on.” - Jessica

No, we were not commenting that caution tape should literally reflect who is working, although having spoken to female construction workers, they do care - it’s just one more thing they have to deal with in a line of work that is already fraught with sexism. No, we aren’t so worried about caution tape that we are going to mount a protest over it (yes, we immediately moved on after noting the tape).  Yes, we will continue to be a company founded on feminist principles. No, the caution tape is not really that important because nearly everyone knows that “caution: men at work” just means “look out, work is happening here.”  

NEARLY everyone. And now we need the explanation for why we do care enough about the stupid caution tape to post about it on Facebook and write this follow-up explanation.

There’s a population out there who will see this caution tape and draw incorrect conclusions from it - conclusions such as “Men are the only people who work” or “construction sites are where men work” or “women don’t work in construction.”  They will do this because they are very good at seeing things adults ignore (like words on caution tape) and they are very bad at understanding when something is important and when something is unimportant. They also have not lived long enough to have the amount of contextual information they need to process sensory input accurately. This population is children ages 5-8 years old. 

These little people, just like adults, read words and look at things and then draw conclusions based on the information they have.  They are really good at the former - try handing out a card that says:

Mari eats corn but but Marco does not.

Little kids catch the repeated word more often than adults.  Again - terrific observers.

But ask a kid to draw conclusions based on that information, and sheesh, do you ever get some doozies.  For example, based on the information above, my daughter figured out all by herself that corn is for girls. That is some pretty terrible interpretation of data for you. 

Sometimes their inability to draw the conclusions we adults draw is a gift to us and them, like this cartoon illustrates:

But more often, those conclusions contribute to the subtle indoctrination of stereotyping.  When kids read “Men at Work,” they may assume that men (not women) are working. They may not yet have internalized the patriarchal linguistic notion that "men" means "all people" whereas "women" only refers to women, and so think literally that only men work there (which may or may not be true). They might extrapolate and wonder whether women should be or are allowed to be working in a construction site - or whether women work at all.  

The things that children observe inform their assumptions and prejudices, which we all have. Children develop these insights both from their own observations and from adults actively teaching them.  When they see an aisle full of pink toys, and they “know” that “pink is for girls” - because they only ever see girls wearing pink - then they also “know” that all those pink toys are “girl” toys.  When they see every boy wearing dinosaurs, diggers, and fire engines, and no girls wearing them… you can see where I am going with this. It’s the entire reason that we founded Princess Awesome & Boy Wonder.  

What children see informs them as to what others are like as well as what they personally can be and do. They will draw those conclusions based on the visual information they observe every day - and no amount of active adult teaching to the contrary will change their assumptions.  It’s what THEY see, not just what we SAY, that informs them as to how to interpret and understand their world. How often do we repeat to girls, “You can be anything!” only to see girls’ interest in science wane starting at age 6? We need to back up what we say by changing the world around us - so that their walk matches our talk.

So the words on caution tape do matter. They matter enough that we should be conscious not to use it if it presents an inaccurate worldview - especially when, in this case, it’s being used at a school.   

Yes, I agree.  It’s such a tiny, insignificant problem. That makes it the kind of problem that’s easy to solve but which can make a huge difference in how children see themselves, and how others see them.  Change the caution tape. Change the world.  




Eva St. Clair
Eva St. Clair

Eva St. Clair is a co-founder of Princess Awesome and the company's Chief Creative Officer. She and her husband are raising four kids outside of Washington, DC.


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18 Responses

Jessica Powers
Jessica Powers

January 19, 2020

I am reading an essay on the use of language in Caroline Duffy’s poetry and this line made me think of this post again. I’m more than ever feeling annoyed at the confusion between pointing out old-fashioned and inaccurate phrases and wanting to discuss them and clarify them (work ahead is short and sweet, no gender needed!) with the state of offence. Anyway, thought I should share. Because I’m beginning to feel that our inability to have discussion, and the taboo about so many topic: what we earn, what we pay in tax, what kind of religion, spirituality or lack of such we work with, sex etc, and the disdain society often colors philosophy and critical thinking discussions with, is part of why we’re having trouble talking about every day use of language. When society feel that parsing various meanings from poetry is not worth teaching and drops arts from school curriculum, it doesn’t surprise me that we get ‘hey look at this, let’s talk about it’ warped into ‘stop being so offended at everything.’

So, here’s the quote:
“What matters when it comes to capturing reality is the ability to use language thoughtfully and well; and that involves respect for the multiplicity of possible meanings.” – ‘An axe to a willow to see how it wept’: the creative use of cliche and the commonplace in Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife is analysed by Libby Hudson.(Cover story).Libby Hudson. The English Review 18.2 (Nov 2007): p38(4). (2337 words)

Casey
Casey

January 19, 2020

BRAVO for calling this out! I’ve realized 2 things over the years:
1. Words matter. Even small ones, even on caution tape. They are not insignificant. They can build up or break down. Wars have been launched over words.
2. Early in my adolescence, I remember that as I tomboy I would side with the guys on many things like this. “You’re being too sensitive, I would say.” I realized later in life that it was my way of showing I wasn’t “girly” and that I “fit in” with the guys! I revolted against pink and all things frilly to show that I was better than other girls. Now that I am a grown Active Duty Navy woman with a 4 year old daughter, I realize that I had been embarrassed about the feminine part of me, even though I was a self-proclaimed feminist. If I want my daughter to be able to embrace all of who she is and proudly be who she is, I need to be cognizant of the micro aggressions that can make young people feel they need to deny part of who they are.
It’s not one caution tape…it’s a caution tape in a sea of other things we say “don’t matter”. When they all add up, they send a message that is not positive for our young people as a whole. keep fighting the good fight.

Donald
Donald

January 18, 2020

I have to agree with you. My nine year old niece (who, by the way, loves all your stuff), DOES notice things like this. And she asks questions. And let me say another thing. I spent 30 years as an Army officer—retired about 7 years ago—and went through the degenderization, if you will, of our terminology. Form answering the phone with “How may I help you, sir?” to “How may I help you sir or ma’am?” to just “how may I help you?” From “Listen up, men!” To “Listen up, people!” to “listen up!” Because in a work environment, particularly one that is predominantly male, these so-called “innocent,” “don’t get your panties in a wad” slights are anything but that. Particularly when there are women in positions of authority, and the men below them want to deny them their authority. So what’s wrong with making a tape that says “CAUTION—WORK IN PROGRESS,” because it says exactly the same thing as CAUTION—MEN AT WORK. And you don’t have to twist around the meaning of any words—because now you’re focusing on being careful because of the activity being conducted, NOT on who is doing it.

Liz
Liz

January 18, 2020

The word “man” includes both MAN and woMAN. It is not excluding anyone. See, it’s part of both words.

Sarah
Sarah

January 18, 2020

Keep doing what you are doing. Change won’t happen if we all stay silent.

Karen Klinck
Karen Klinck

January 18, 2020

I come from a generation which would have remarked, “Oh, it’s not important enough to have a woman working on it.” ! was 24 when they passed Roe V. Wade. Yes, something to take notice of, but not enough to make a stink about. Good response!

Michelle
Michelle

January 18, 2020

I’m surprised by the negative responses you’ve gotten considering that you sell clothes that push back against gender norms. That being said, I have also wondered about the names of your brands. Have you been thinking about a unified brand name rather than the binary ones?

Jessica Powers
Jessica Powers

January 18, 2020

I didn’t see this on Facebook, and I’m glad. I’m not sure my blood pressure would have coped with the idea of you becoming ‘too feminist’. Especially on the split second attention span of social media the assumption that you got your self all worked up over the tape, rather than had the mindfulness to notice the tape, snap a quick photo, and write a one sentence caption about how out of sync with the times it is – totally ridiculous. As for the idea that ‘man’ or ‘men’ always refers to women…I understand that idea, but in practice I’ve never read it with that sort of ease and hell, it’s not too much to change to ‘work(ers) ahead’ is it? Simple and more to the point, isn’t it? This idea that noticing = offence is rubbing me raw, to see something and speak about it is not the same as being offended.

Dawn
Dawn

January 18, 2020

I appreciate your thoughts on this. Why should women constantly have to ignore these microagressions? I think we can call it out when you see it and expect a change.

Debbie
Debbie

January 18, 2020

That is the silliest argument I’ve ever heard. “Men“ is a universal word that has always applied to also mean “people“. Did you not learn that in school? I learned that at a very young age. In this world, girls are being shown every day that they can be whatever they want to be, but they are also being shown that they should be offended by everything and anything. That hurts them a lot more than these petty little things you’re talking about. I’m left-handed and everything I use every day is for right handed people. Am I offended? No. I come from a generation that fought for women to be able to be whatever they want to be. I have three daughters who have jobs that they wouldn’t have had in the 60s and 70s. I didn’t teach my daughters to be offended by every word or phrase that they didn’t like. They can see a “men working“ sign and if they see a woman working they know that it applies to women too. I guess maybe my daughters have common sense. I also raised two boys to know that boys and girls can do anything they want to do. If you keep up this ridiculous “message“ that you’re trying to shove down our throats, you will lose mine and a lot of other peoples business. I have a lot of grandchildren that I’d like to buy for but not with a business that’s trying to spread messages about the ridiculous.

Leslie
Leslie

January 18, 2020

Thanks for the post (which I think I missed) and this column. Occasionally this type of argument has arisen in my workplace or at my child’s school. I’ve often responded by offering up the following poem, which seems to me to be sufficient (and has a beautiful cadence):
==
Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn’t I recognize my mother?” “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn’t say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That’s what
you think.”

MURIEL RUKEYSER
“Myth”, from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser

Mary Verdier
Mary Verdier

January 18, 2020

Yes it matters. I was shocked at all the negative comments. So we should just accept it because it’s always been that way? Let’s keep challenging sexism (and all forms of discrimination – even if unintended and seemingly insignificant. Children notice these little things. We should too.

Susan
Susan

January 18, 2020

I shop with you for my son who wears dresses so your tag line may be confusing for him in the same way:
We’re a clothing company for girls who love all things awesome.

Jessica
Jessica

January 18, 2020

I can’t believe you got so many negative responses completely ignoring things from a kid’s perspective. I often see “Men Working Above” signs when window washers are working around the buildings where my office is. There also happens to be an indoor climbing gym nearby. I have thought how some of the girls who enjoy that gym and have no fear of heights or hanging from ropes might think window washer would be a cool job and then see that sign and consider it not for them :(

April
April

January 18, 2020

As adults, the “small” messages have become so normalized that we don’t see how harmful they are to the brains of our little people. Thank you for helping us rethink from a different perspective. We need to do better, starting with something as simple (seemingly) as caution tape. Bravo!

Elizabeth
Elizabeth

January 18, 2020

Go you for pointing out this microagression. The most important messages often receive the most resistance because people simply aren’t ready to see the impact of these seemingly “small” things, especially if it challenges their worldview or they are operating from a position of power. Later they may say “oh yeah”. Having the courage to make posts like these will help advance the cause of equality and fairness. I like that your message is part of your mission, and I like that you’re not afraid of talking about hard issues. Despite it being a very challenging moment to be growing up in America, I’m glad my sons are growing up in the era of Princess Awesome and Boy Wonder. Keep being brave!

Lauren
Lauren

January 18, 2020

I’m honestly surprised it got such pointed negative responses! It’s a good point to make and be aware of and it’s not like you were staging a huge protest about it. Our little ones ingest EVERYTHING and we need to be aware of subliminal messages they’re getting, intentional or not.

Beth
Beth

January 18, 2020

Its not the biggest thing we need to be concerned about for sure, but it is important to be conscious of these quiet maybe even subliminal messages that keep going in to our brains. Thanks for spreading the good messages!

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