Considering some ethics in marketing Children’s Media…
The past few years have seen a drastic increase in the amount of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) programs, products, and especially toys targeted towards girls. As a girl who studied life sciences in university I couldn’t have been happier. This was perfect! What a time to be alive! …at least, that’s what I thought at first.
Now before you shoot me I AM ALL FOR GIRLS IN STEM. Like I said before I was ecstatic at first with all the emerging efforts to bring more inclusion into the field I always had great interest in myself. But as I tend to do, I thought about the issue more and more, and as I tend to do, I began to have some doubts. My doubts aren’t from the idea of making STEM accessible for girls through toys, but rather how we seem to be doing it.
There is a significant under-representation of women in STEM fields. This is not new. It has been repeatedly reported that there are far less women working in STEM fields or even holding STEM-related degrees. The distribution of women actually in STEM is also heavily dependent on the field, with women being more prevalent in biology and heavily lacking in engineering and computer sciences. This pattern has become of great concern in recent years and both the Canadian and American governments have conducted research studies that confirm this disparity.
As a response to this imbalance there has been an increased amount of attention on STEM-focused toys, particularly ones that are aimed towards girls. I have also heard of retailers creating more “gender-neutral […] environments” but I’m not certain whether this means increasing the number of gender neutral toys being sold, or giving girls more toys that are normally considered “for boys” (e.g. construction sets, science sets etc.), though I am inclined to think it’s the latter.
Of course, there is absolutely no problem with having STEM-focused toys for girls. I applaud the effort. Women ARE underrepresented in STEM, and we should make an active effort to help every child realize their full potential, regardless of their field of interest and equalize opportunity. My doubt started manifesting, however, when I realized how these toys were designed and marketed, and how much “for girls” they actually were. Let me explain…
When I search “STEM toys for girls” I find results like this:
But when I start looking for the best STEM toys overall I get toys where I can dig up and assemble a T-Rex Skeleton, control a robot arm, grow crystals, and actually build a robot from LEGO?! WHOA! What can I build with “LEGO sets for girls”?
Other STEM toys “for girls” seem to follow similar themes, with Jewelbots teaching girls how to program a digital friendship bracelet, and GoldieBlox teaching girls about simple machines and physics in construction with books and play sets that are unapologetically pink and purple. These toys all teach valuable lessons and help spark interest in the currently male-dominated STEM fields. As Pia Sen aptly puts in her article for cognito.org, these toys that closely resemble the jewelry play sets and princess books that young girls may have previously received can help them feel “as though it’s a natural progression to go from Cinderella to C++.”
A problem arises when there isn’t any break from these themes, when all STEM toys “for girls” are like this. Many of these toys are meant to “introduce” STEM to girls, and they do a fine job. But what happens when a girl wants to continue into STEM? What toys are available to a young girl that wants to continue exploring these fields? How far can you go when the toys “designed for you” have you building easily constructed coffee shops and parks while the boy beside you is making solar powered robots and remote control cars?
It seems (to me) that many STEM toys specifically for girls don’t have the same progression of required skill as STEM toys that are gender neutral. LEGO’s history started off very gender neutral, with boys and girls playing with sets that required the same level of skill to build. However, once LEGO started making sets aimed towards girls, their products split into two types: the sets clearly marketed for girls that were easier and dealt with home life or jewelry, and another line of toy sets that could’ve been easily gender neutral but were marketed toward boys. As Pia Sen asks in her article: “Did they not think we were capable of doing things beyond a middle school level?”
This isn’t to say that I want a pink T-Rex skeleton to dig up, or a bejeweled robot to build. Rather, I’m wondering why there hasn’t been as much, if not more, effort to market and emphasize STEM toys as gender neutral, instead of focusing all our efforts to make STEM “for girls.” I guess my greatest and overall concern about this movement (and maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m crazy) is that is seems like there are two streams of STEM emerging: one for boys, and one for girls. This isn’t going to fly in the future. It can’t (…can it? I really feel like it shouldn’t…).
It seems a bit counterproductive to promote gender equality in STEM by making a clear distinction between what’s considered “STEM for girls” and what’s not. It’s great that girls are being considered when making these toys and programs, but you can’t just “introduce” a field as big and particular as STEM and then leave it at that, simply expecting people to continue challenging themselves to think a certain way and critically evaluate ideas. The levels of difficulty offered by both STEM products “made for girls” and “made for boys” need to be balanced, and the toys themselves just need to be GOOD and INTERESTING, as toys should be. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s important (to me) because when these kids grow up, they won’t be in labs or workshops separated by gender (at least, I really hope they won’t be…). They will be working together to make great changes in the world, and I for one hope they step into their workspaces on equal terms with each other.
So now my question is: if the toys and games that started and nurtured their interests provided the same level of engagement, difficulty, and quality, does it really matter if one was pink or not?
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