Another startup touting educational toys for girls recently wrapped a Kickstarter campaign and is likely on its way toward a formal launch.
Linkitz, a programmable bracelet, joins the growing number of toy startups devoted to getting girls involved with technology, an effort that has no doubt been inspired by the egregiously low number of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
In 1985, women comprised 37 percent of computer science students; now only 18 percent of women graduate with computer science degrees. Every major tech company, from Facebook to Google, is seeking to expand the number of women in their ranks.
Toys geared at girls serve to get them interested in coding and building when they’re young, hopefully inspiring their educational interests down the road. But these gendered toys may be hurting women by perpetuating a divide between men and women.
“We see the real problem as being the way that construction, science, and technical toys are promoted, packaged and merchandised in a way that excludes girls. If GoldieBlox aims to disrupt the ‘pink aisle’ — we’re doing our best to make sure there’s no such thing,” said Jess Day, a campaigner for Let Toys Be Toys, a U.K.-based organization devoted to eradicating the distinction between girls’ and boys’ toys.
GoldieBlox makes a builders kit (similar to Tinkertoys, but more advanced) aimed at girls. Each toy comes with a book and instructions for how to build a particular contraption, though girls can make anything with the toy set. The company had an auspicious debut in 2013 with a Super Bowl ad that went viral.
Since then, other toy companies have emerged with the aim of getting girls on the STEM bandwagon. For example, Roominate lets girls make electrically wired buildings and rooms, while Linkitz teaches girls to code a programmable bracelet. These toys focus on using social mechanisms and narrative storytelling to make science and tech more intriguing to young girls.
While it’s good that these toy makers are creating playthings that expose girls to coding, building, and learning, there’s something about them all that seems, well, a little too pink. By which I mean, the marketing strategy for these toys seems to assume that girls need to be lured into liking math and science with pastel colors and flashing lights.
When I was a girl I didn’t need convincing to be intrigued by science and math games. I used to love playing problem-solving computer games like Crystal Caves, where players have to come up with thoughtful plans to collect all the gems in a cave and avoid evil foes, and Miner’s Cave, which requires players to use simple machines to solve problems. I also loved playing Oregon Trail, a game where you had to feed yourself on squirrels and avoid dysentery as you made your trek toward Oregon; SimCity, where you actually planned and developed your own cities; and Early Math, a program hosted by a purple alien that leads you through math problems.
Sure, maybe I was a bit of a tomboy. I liked collecting Matchbox cars and playing with toy trucks, Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and Legos. Then, as now, I hated the color pink. But I also played “social games” like make-believe and had a ton of Barbies, not to mention a particular affection for Jem and the Holograms, Rainbow Brite, and She-Ra, all of whom were super feminine. I took dance classes, I played with makeup, I was a girl like any other.
The difference, I think, is that those computer games and the various car and building sets I adored didn’t come across as being gendered. At least no one told me they were for boys. In general I remember my toys in classrooms and at home being far unconcerned with what genitalia I had.
Not so for girls today. Just look at how the Toys”R”Us website highlights which toys are for boys and which are for girls. The Disney Store also categorizes products into girls versus boys, as do many physical stores. But this hasn’t always been the case.
“What we’ve seen is a noticeable increase in the use of gender in marketing [of] toys since the 1970s/80s,” said Day. For example, less than 2 percent of Sears catalogue ads from the 1970s assigned toys to a specific gender, research shows.
Toys are more gendered likely because it serves merchandisers to create products that can’t be reused easily. For instance, by marketing toys separately it makes it harder for a couple to hand down the toys they bought for their first child, who is a boy, down to their second child, who is a girl. Segregating toy products by gender therefore drives sales.
That’s how we’ve gotten what’s called “the pink aisle,” a grouping of toys that are inevitably pink and aimed at activities that girls are supposed to like: grooming, shopping, and caretaking — very stereotypical ideas of what constitute girl activities. The existence of the pink aisle (and the dearth of women in STEM jobs) led to the creation of startups like Roominate, Linkitz, and GoldieBlox, and toys that are trying to disrupt the pink aisle and expand the expectation for what girls are into.
“I think that some of these new toys are bringing in some excellent new strands and approaches e.g., adding narrative to an engineering problem will really bring it to life for some children for whom it wouldn’t otherwise connect,” said Day. But she said this only ends up reinforcing the idea that all the other toys are for boys; it also creates this idea of “girl science” that is somehow different from “boy science.”
These narrative science and engineering toys slated explicitly for girls may also lock out boys that are more inspired by a narrative approach to engineering or playing in general.
“If a ‘girl science’ toy gets a girl interested, that’s one thing,” Day said. “But is it at the cost of giving her the idea that science isn’t really for girls? And where is she supposed to go next if all the more demanding toys/equipment is in a part of the shop labeled ‘boys’?”
That’s perhaps the biggest question about toy segregation meant to inspire tomorrow’s leaders in STEM. Ultimately, girls (who will become women) are going to have to learn and work in a world where genders are not segregated — as will the boys (who grow into men). That means they need to learn how to interact with one another as much as they need to be introduced to the same educational opportunities. If STEM education is as much for girls as it is for boys, perhaps we should be equally concerned with getting boys and girls to play together with the same toys and tools as we are with creating learning opportunities for girls.
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