Entity reports on a toy that could get young girls interested in STEM.

We all probably dream of a world where little girls can grow up to be whatever they want, whether that’s a stay-at-home mom or an engineer. While it’s true that gender equality is improving, there’s one area that needs some major TLC: STEM. Right now, women only make up 11 percent of engineers.

Some – ranging from GoldieBlox, which offers construction toys with a girly vibe, to Linkitz, which provides programmable electronic charms that can transform a bracelet into different toys – have claimed to find a way to improve that number. How? By offering STEM toys marketed specifically to girls.

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However, these pink-colored engineering toys may be building more than just girls’ interest in engineering. In fact, as ironic as it sounds, these toys are actually building up gender inequality as well. How? Here are five ways that engineering toys for girls are contributing to gender inequality even as they claim to help fight it.

1 Toy aisles are more gendered than ever before.

It’s impossible to deny that companies like GoldieBlox have a heartwarming and applaudable goal: to decrease the gender gap in STEM. However, they’re contributing to an even wider gap: the contrast between blue and pink aisles in toy stores.

At the peak of gendered toys in the 20th century, around half of toys were still be advertised as gender neutral. Examining the 1975 Sears catalogue reveals that only two percent of toys were marketed as “for boys” or “for girls,” and several ads blatantly challenged gender stereotypes (such as by showing boys playing with dolls and girls acting out masculine roles such as doctor or scientist). Just compare those stats to the fact that, today, the Disney Store’s website doesn’t advertise a single toy as being suitable for girls and boys. According to one little girl named Riley, this is an unacceptable change.

What changed? In 1984, children’s television programming was deregulated. This meant that companies could create full-length ads for their products, and gender began playing an important role in these shows and their corresponding ads and products. By 1995, less than half of the Sear’s catalogue consisted of gender neutral toys.

As Elizabeth Sweet from The Atlantic points out, thanks to gendered toys, the “little homemaker” of the 1950s has transformed into today’s “little princess.”

With these new, girly engineering toys, it seems like another transition has taken place: girls are now the “little engineer,” and while that title may sound more free, its label as a “girl’s toy” makes it just as restrictive as its predecessors.

2 Different toys means different takes on science…

So what’s the big deal about toys in the first place? The truth is, toys have been shown to impact a child’s attitudes about gender and other aspects of life. For instance, Megan Fulcher, associate professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, states: “Play with masculine toys is associated with large motor development and spatial skills and play with feminine toys is associated with fine motor development, language development and social skills.”

This is one of the reasons that companies like GoldieBlox claim their toys are so important. Founder Debbie Sterling explains, “[Many people] suggested the reason why girls and women don’t enter engineering is a biological reason.” However, she discovered, “Construction toys do really help develop spatial skills and are a good precursor for engineering, but they have been heavily marketed toward boys for over 100 years.” By creating construction toys for girls, Sterling hoped to give girls the same access to spatial skills helpful for careers in STEM.

The problem is, creating an engineering toy “for girls” only reinforces the idea that there is “girl science” and there is a different “boy science,” according to Jess Day, a campaigner for Let Toys Be Toys, which strives to remove distinctions between toys for girls and boys. “If a ‘girl science’ toy gets a girl interested, that’s one thing,” Day says. “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’?”

Research has already shown how impactful toys can be. Do we really want girls growing up with the idea that they can be scientists or engineers too – but only with the “right” (and often pink) equipment?

3 Even “engineering” based toys for girls still reflect gender stereotypes.

You may have heard mothers say, “But my daughter honestly likes pink dresses more than blue trucks. What am I supposed to do with that?” Of course, people have their own unique preferences, whether to toys as a child or jobs as an adult. However, the idea that boys are born liking blue and girls are born liking pink is nothing more than a harmful myth. In fact, research suggests that all babies are drawn to the color blue, and that associating girls with pink is a cultural tradition that began back in the 1940s.

Underneath the assumed color preferences are even more worrisome stereotypes. In 2015, Target went viral on Twitter for having a sign saying “Building Sets” and “Girls’ Building Sets” in one of its stores. Although companies claim that they only use labels like these so customers can find the products easier, mothers like Abi Betchtel don’t buy that excuse. “It stood out to me as a good example of the way our culture tends to view boys and men as the default, normal option and girls and women as the specialized exception,” she explains.

She isn’t the only one who has expressed concern with gendered STEM toys. In 2012, over 57,000 people signed a petition asking Lego to agree to gender parity after it released Lego Friends (a Lego line designed specifically for girls). Besides accusing Lego of perpetuating gender stereotypes with the pink-colored town called Heartlake and typically girly touches like pet salons and bakeries, people claimed that many of the sets arrived preassembled. This means that girls don’t have the chance to develop the same building skills as boys.

Engineering toys for girls may have a valiant goal of decreasing gender inequality within STEM; however, it seems like these toys are just as vulnerable as others to perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes.

4 These toys promote segregation of the sexes.

Was your best friend a girl or a boy? If your earliest BFF was of the same gender, you might have toys to blame – as crazy as that sounds. Because of the increased gendering of toys, girls and boys play more differently than ever before, according to psychologist and author Lori Day. “Boys and girls stop playing together at a much younger age than was developmentally typical until this recent gender segmentation,” she explains. “The resulting rigidly stereotyped gender roles are unhealthy for both males and females, who are actually more alike than different.”

This segregation is even more worrisome when you consider the toys’ goal in the first place: to decrease the gender gap in STEM. After all, right now, males dominate occupations within those fields. So what are women supposed to do if they grow up with a passion for STEM – but no idea how to work with the opposite sex on building projects? Ultimately, men and women will have to work together to succeed in STEM…and to succeed in improving gender equality. The first step toward that team work is encouraging girls and boys to interact from the start – and if a girl won’t touch a boy’s blue screwdriver or a boy won’t mess with a girl’s pink building set, how can that team work ever begin?

5 These “girly” STEM toys may not actually make girls more interested in STEM.

When you buy your daughter that pink chemistry set, you’re probably hoping that it will spark a love of science – or at least, a realization that she is just as capable of becoming a scientist as any boy. However, research suggests that your “empowering” purchase might backfire.

A 2012 study found that highly feminine STEM role models actually caused girls who already weren’t interested in science to further distance themselves from STEM occupation. Why? The only thing more intimidating – and seemingly unattainable to match – than a successful woman is an overly feminine one, apparently.

Even GoldieBlox’s founder Debbie Sterling is skeptical on how certain toys can change the STEM gender gap. In particular, she points to Lego Friends, saying, “The Lego Friends line has definitely been getting girls to play with Legos. But I don’t think it’s been inspiring girls to want to be engineers. It’s continuing to inspire girls to look pretty and decorate.” There’s also the issue of other cultural factors that are discouraging girls from going into STEM. Just consider the fact that Asia and the U.S. both boast plenty of dolls in their toy stores, but Asia’s gender gap in math is much smaller than America’s. While researchers aren’t exactly sure why, cultural differences – like a better gender balance of teachers in school – are likely play a large role.

Whatever your personal views on engineering, gendered Legos and other toys, one fact is certain: making engineering toys for girls isn’t enough to fix the gender gap in STEM.

Because, as wonderful as it would be to fight gender inequality by simply buying our daughter a pink building set, engineering toys for girls are just as troubling as the inequality they are striving to fight.

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Maybe, instead of creating engineering toys for girls and for boys, we should go back to our historical roots and create just one set of building tools that anyone – of any gender or sex – can enjoy. Maybe the secret to more female engineers isn’t pink legos, but toys that boys and girls can use and learn from together, one colorful creation at a time.

Edited by Sutheshna Mani

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