GoldieBlox & the Three Blog Posts, Pt. 1

Editor’s Note: this is the first of three blog posts about GoldieBlox, the new set of “Engineering Toys for Girls.” See the second (next) post here, and the third (final?) post here.

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

Rose Sokol-Chang

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.)

Sokol-Chang chart 1.png

Created with data from National Science Foundation, 2013. (Note: Psychology and Social Sciences are not included in STEM, but are included in this figure as they are traditionally the sciences women most flock to).

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.

See, this girl LOVES Lego!

See, this girl LOVES Lego!

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.)

Luckily, we have the “Hollywood Starlet” figure so that I can exchange the head and she can become a scuba diver or a firefighter.

Luckily, we have the “Hollywood Starlet” figure so that I can exchange the head and she can become a scuba diver or a firefighter. (Editor’s Note: Look at that lipstick! Femme Firefighter pride! IT’S ABOUT TIME!!!)

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.

 

References

Hyde, J. S. (1984). Children’s understanding of sexist language. Developmental Psychology, 20, 697-706. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.20.4.697

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/

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2 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    The Bakugan example is interesting….one of the companies involved with Bakugan is “Spin Master”, who also makes “Zoobles”. Zoobles are the same basic engineering concept as Bakugans but they have been marketed as toys in COMPLETELY different ways….gendered ways, I might add. Whereas Bakugans are competitive battling toys, Zoobles are adorable little animals to be collected and placed into habitats and cared for. Whereas Bakugans are black and gold and grey and red and royal blue and emerald green and only kind of abstractly evoke creatures, Zoobles are pink and turquoise and purple and furry with big eyes. As is so often the case, instead of developing a toy that will appeal to both boys and girls and break down gendered stereotypes, the company developed 2 separate toys playing on the stereotyped interests of boys and girls. So disappointing.

    One toy that appears to have been grappling with this paradox of marketing to both boys and girls are the Skylanders series of games. The game seems to have been quite carefully designed in recognition of the fact that most of its players will probably be boys, but with deliberate efforts made to avoid too much explicit gendering, include elements that will appeal to boys and girls alike, and also have visible male and female characters in the game. Certainly, there are more male Skylanders than girls, but the girl characters are visible, mainstream, and powerful. Whatever they’re doing seems to be working, because my son and his (male) friends are just as eager to collect and play with the girl characters as the boys.

  2. Rose Sokol-Chang says:

    Stacey, I had no idea about Bakugans so thanks for sharing! I am so clueless about many toys that I actually meant Beyblades. A mistake I quickly realized when visiting my nephew over the holiday. The Bakugan example seems related to Lego then, as you’ve outlined it – playing into stereotypes with separate products, rather than attracting boys and girls to one/both.

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