GoldieBlox & the Three Blog Posts, Pt. 1
If you find yourself addicted to reading Gap Junction Science coverage of Science! Toys! for! Girls!, check out our older post about Lego Lady Scientist.
Bringing future scientists (boys and girls) together through play
When boys and girls who are into science turn into women and men who practice science, they don’t have separate sets of tools they each use to do their research. What if we designed toys with this in mind, not silo-ed based on a notion of how girls and boys are different, but instead with a focus on what skills they are mutually interested in developing?
Women continue to be underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, particularly engineering. In the United States, women make up around 18% of college graduates in engineering, and the number drops to around 13% for those employed in the engineering profession. In the STM disciplines, excluding engineering, around 43% of the college graduates are women; though the number still drops when considering the STM workplace, which is made up of around 37% women. (All of these stats are based on the 2010 figures from the National Science Foundation, 2013.)
In an effort to rectify this disparity, there have been many efforts to engage girls and women in STEM disciplines. Recently, a well intentioned product line called “GoldieBlox” (http://www.goldieblox.com/) aims to get girls interested in engineering through toys marketed directly toward them*. Unlike the Lego Friends® line, they are intentionally not pink and purple. Arguably there are benefits towards this product marketing, yet, products like this seem to miss the mark on at least two points.
The first is that there are many toys marketed towards boys that girls could be, and often are, quite interested in. Blocks, and specifically Lego®, are prime examples. Lego® has perfected their interlocking blocks over the past 60+ years, and has developed a ridiculously diverse fan base – from kids, to adults who construct entire cities, to a movement to introduce students to robotics (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ideas-innovations/How-Lego-Is-Constructing-the-Next-Generation-of-Engineers-204137981.html). In many cases, Lego® essentially serves as a ‘gateway’ toy to STEM disciplines. (Editor’s Note: I love the concept of ‘gateway toys’ to STEM disciplines. I wish I had thought of it and am contemplating pretending I did.) (Now I’m done contemplating and I feel like it would be justified, but unethical, so I’ll have to credit that sneaky Sokol Chang for writing it first.) This is a great example of a toy that doesn’t need to be redesigned to appeal to children, but could stand some alterations to appeal specifically to girls.
Which brings me to the second problem with designing toys for one gender. Doing so shapes the opinions of both girls and boys regardless of which is engaged with the toy. I’ve recently started paying attention to my son’s Lego® figures, no doubt in part because of Sari van Anders’ blog post about the Female Scientist figure. (Editor’s Note: Don’t mind me; I’m just wiping tears of pride from my eyes.) For all of the Lego® sets my son owns, the figures are all men. When looking through the Lego City® sets online, female figures appear in supporting roles (i.e. town shoppers) but not as the central figure. In the four City Space® sets, all of the astronauts are male. In the coast guard sets, the truck drivers and scuba divers are male. If using masculine pronouns shapes our imaginations about the roles that women and men do hold (Hyde, 1984), then how could seeing only male coast guard, firefighter, police, and other characters shape the ways we thinking about the roles that women and men can hold? If girls don’t see themselves reflected in the toy, they will be less interested; if boys don’t see females in their sets, their imaginations about the limits of men and women will no doubt be affected. (Editor’s non-sarcastic note: This is a really good point that often gets lost… it’s not just girls who need to see girls and women represented. We need our boys and men to see a world that involves females too.)
To be fair, Lego has created some professional female figures in their one-off Minifigures line, including a Scientist and a Surgeon. After 60 years, why shouldn’t Lego work on incorporating them into the sets they sell that depict people in their everyday lives and jobs?
There are some toys that appeal more to boys, on average, than girls and vice versa. My buddy Andrew loves Bakugan and I just don’t get the allure. (Editor’s Note: I had to look up Bakugan, and then my brain exploded even though my browser couldn’t display all the media.) Yet, there are many toys that could be just as appealing to boys and girls, and those are generally the toys that work on skills each develop throughout the school years – including Lego® and other toys that develop skills for our future engineers, and computer, natural, and social scientists. I’d like to think that in conjunction to developing these skills, children will be allowed to work on their emotional development by working with other kids, regardless of the gender of their playmates.
When I spoke to my son about this post, I said “women can do these things your Lego® men do, right?” and he said “yeah, except they can’t pee standing up.” ‘Nuff said.
*Note to commercial producers – when marketing said products, how about not adapting a song with original lyrics “Girls, to do the dishes; Girls, to clean up my room….” to empower girls to develop science skills?
Editor’s Note: The author wanted to make clear that she likes the Beastie Boys, but that the original lyrics are problematic and that there are plenty of girl power songs, many by women, that could have been just as catchy.
Hyde, J. S. (1984). Children’s understanding of sexist language. Developmental Psychology, 20, 697-706. doi: 10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1997
National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2013). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2013. Special Report NSF 13-304. Arlington, VA. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/