{{girlification}} of science and engineering toys: the good and the bad

Lately I’ve been noticing an increase in the number of advertising campaigns that touch upon the messy realities of sexism and the subtle ways in which women are enculturated into gendered careers, lifestyles, and mannerisms. One particular issue – that of encouraging young girls towards STEM fields and cultivating their interests in science, engineering, and math – seems particularly important.

A recent ad for Verizon brushes on how girls are discouraged from the science world at an early age:

I find the discourse interesting because there are many different ways in which we can encourage young girls to partake in science and engineering activities. One method is to “girlify” these toys and tools, and this has been both applauded and criticized, both for equally valid reasons.

For example, Goldiblox is a company (that I supported back as a kickstarter!) the develops engineering toys based on narrative play, to help integrate engineering into the types of play that female children generally are most attracted to.

Their philosophy, below explains this idea:

At GoldieBlox, our goal is to get girls building. We’re here to help level the playing field in every sense of the phrase. By tapping into girls’ strong verbal skills, our story + construction set bolsters confidence in spatial skills while giving young inventors the tools they need to build and create amazing things.

In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys’ toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.

We believe there are a million girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. We think GoldieBlox can show them the way.(Source: http://www.goldieblox.com/pages/about)

Alternatively, the whole “girlification” of engineering toys has generally been considered a huge failure for Lego. As explained beautifully by feministfrequency.com, the new Lego Friends” sets marketed for girls are entirely pastel pink and purple. These Lego girls live in “HeartLake” city which is a heavily gender-stereotyped world where the Lego girls can do their hair, take care of the home, and get their pets groomed, among other limiting roles. Most critically, the Lego Friends dolls don’t integrate with all of the pre-existing Lego sets, further segregating girls’ Lego play.

In many ways, both Goldieblox and Lego Friends are toys that are built on the idea that girls and boys have different styles of play. Yet while Goldieblox seems liberating in adding engineering to storytelling, Lego Friends seems constricting in forcing girls to conform to a gender stereotype.

Another controversial use of “girlification” is Made With Code, Google’s initiative to get girls more involved in computer science through code-based projects that include DIY jewelry and making music. As Mindy Kaling explained  (she emceed an event),  

I was very traditionally girly. I thought [coding] wasn’t very social. I thought it was for boys. I thought it was solitary and not fun. I was into Latin, which is 100 percent more boring than coding. But I was into it because of the way that it was sold to me in high school. It was really social, and I felt like cool people were doing it and that’s why I wanted to do it. If coding can be sold that way, that’s awesome. (Source: http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/06/who-wants-to-build-mindy-kalings-apps.html).

Ultimately, I’m torn on whether or not these sorts of tools help to reinforce stereotypes or to break them down. I was definitely a tomboy as a child, and I played with “boy” Legos and similar construction sets without any thoughts about whether or not these toys should be for me. However, the reality is that our world is one where many girls are taught to be “girly,”  and if “girlification” works at engaging this population in engineering and science, we’ve opened that door for millions of girls who would have otherwise never dared to try building with Legos, or coding, or engineering. Perhaps the most important issue is ensuring that these marketed toys are in no way lesser than or more limiting than their male-marketed counterparts. For example, the Lego Friends sets could have been far more effective if they simply integrated themselves into the pre-existing Lego World, even if they included some pink and purple blocks.

What do you think about this approach to encouraging young girls in Math and Science?


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