Are “Engineering Toys for Girls” Reinforcing Stereotypes?

Guest-blogger Pic3
DownloadLaurie Peterson is the founder and CEO of
Build & Imagine, a construction toy startup that set out to get girls building, and ended up inviting boys to play too. Laurie received the “Rising Star Toy Inventor of the Year” at the 2015 Toy and Game Inventor award show, for her magnetic construction sets that spark storytelling.

Imagine a Trojan horse dressed as a glittery pink pony, prancing down the “girls”’ toy isle in Toys R Us. A secret compartment in the pony’s belly pops open, from which a pile of pastel colored building toys tumble out. Girls sweep them up with glee and parents beam with pride, as their girls are finally building and developing foundational STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, and math) right alongside the boys.

That’s essentially what has happened these past few years. The construction category has seen explosive growth in girl players. With the success of Lego Friends, GoldieBlox, the introduction of dozens of pastel colored re-skins of classic building sets, and my own line of Build & Imagine StoryWalls, the toy industry has successfully Trojan-horsed a historically boy play mechanic (building) into little girls’ shopping carts.

Packaging building toys “for girls” was a critical step to get retailers and customers to think differently, and expose girls to important skills that come from building. Parents have embraced the trend in hopes they are empowering their daughters to overcome the gender innovation gap. Now that parents and retailers are on board, what’s next? Is labelling “engineering toys for girls” in the long run actually reinforcing stereotypes?

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Two years ago I set out to create building toys for girls. I interviewed dozens of families, created four iterations of prototypes which I tested with girls, had a successful kickstarter campaign, paired up with an awesome children’s book illustrator, joined a startup accelerator program, kicked off manufacturing, launched five Build & Imagine StoryWalls playsets, and won “Rising Star Toy Inventor of the Year”. I live and breathe our mission to get girls building thereby helping them to overcome the STEM gender gap. Yet somewhere along the way, I decided to invite boys to play too.

Social scientists suggest that segregating toys by gender constrains a child’s development and perception of who they can become. By using gender exclusive labelling, coloring, and theming, even on something as noble as construction toys, we’re making assumptions about a child’s interests and often teaching narrow perceptions of gender expectations. Additionally, by calling out “building toys for girls” when all other in the category are simply labelled “building toys”, we’re implying the world of engineering belongs to boys and girls should exist only in this subsection.

All that may sound subtle, but trust me; kids are soaking in these signals and trying to make sense of their identity. My own five year old, like many other preschoolers and kindergarteners, has become a self-appointed gender police officer decoding which clothes are appropriate to wear and which toys are for whom. Children are looking for rules to help them organize their understanding of the world and according to Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” their brains are most malleable at this age. Toys design and marketing can make a difference by teaching a wider and more inclusive understanding of gender preferences and roles. Doing so will expand a child’s possibilities and allow them to develop into their authentic selves.

Retailers are starting to take note of this concern. In response to social media activism and the efforts of groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, Target recently removed “Girls’ Building Toys” signage and Disney stopped labelling costumes by gender. Dropping “boy” and “girl” labels in store and choosing categorizations that allow previously segregated toys to co-mingle is a good first step. In addition, toy manufacturers need to be careful of what their packages signal, dropping color coding that screams “no girls allowed” (and vice versa).

What about the content of the toys themselves? I’ve seen many parents in the blogosphere nostalgically call for a return to “gender neutral” toys. It’s true that toys have become more and more gender segregated over the years as toy companies recognize the financial benefit of selling brothers and sisters separate toys. While “gender neutral” sounds like something to aspire to, I think that all too often it’s used to mean that girls can play with what boys have typically played with, thereby devaluing typically feminine things. Instead I’d advocate for a “gender inclusive” approach in which we provide kids with a range of toy choices inspired by a wider definition of who we believe girls and boys to be, and then invite children to pick according to their interests, rather than their gender.

Build & Imagine’s first few building sets welcome girls into the construction toy category via leading girl characters and narrative driven play. Building with these sets will help kids develop foundational skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. We designed these building sets especially for girls, but please don’t expect us to say they are just for girls. We invite all kids (and kids at heart) to build and imagine with us. Through exposing our children to a wide range of play styles and themes we can help them develop a rich individualized identity and encourage the belief that all interests are open to everyone.

2 thoughts

  1. We have been making award winning STEM and theme based building kits at Pathfinders Design for years, in gender neutral packaging, and feel sometimes that marketing and branding has taken precedence over quality. The types of “new” products that cater to “STEM for girls” are just the same as everything that has been done, but now with different colours and a picture of fashionably dressed and coiffed girls holding the pieces. That is not innovation, it’s marketing. The push to “girls in STEM” in these types of products has been an exercise in marketing, not changing the products so they are more inline with the way in which girls may interact differently with toys and STEM centered kits.
    I agree with the idea of “gender inclusive” as it pushes us to make products that are interesting to all kids, not boys OR girls.
    Our latest product is a STEM Maker Set, which is a Set of hands-on building materials for Science Centers, engineering outreach programs, and schools. I teach with it in schools, and what I find is that without my prompting the girls make more artisitic and esoteric machines, while the boys tend to make more functional and construction machines. Girls still get their STEM outcomes without being pandered to with colour or “girly design”. They both make great machines, learn about hydraulics, levers and simple machines (and so on), and create their own stories.
    The Hydraulics Maker Set is not marketed to boys or girls and the STEM learning outcomes are the same, even if the girls and boys tend to use it in different ways.
    The STEM gender gap won’t be fixed by creating fancy back stories and girly characters, that just reinforces gender stereotypes – it will be fixed by creating quality open-ended materials where all kids can find interest, explore and experiment and create their own narrative.
    This is an important discussion and as people find more niches in the toy market to focus on (or exploit – this one – “girls in STEM”), we must be vigilant to not jump on the bandwagon of promoting gender stereotypes, but rather to continue to make toys and kits that are open-ended and challenging.
    For the most part though it is easier to create a branding and marketing campaign for a mediocre toy than it is to design a great toy – and then say it will be good for all kids (which can be a more difficult sell).
    STEM for girls is a thing, but I’m not sure the “toy industry” is always on the right path, and with Kickstarter it has become a bit too easy for anyone with an idea and a marketing graduate partner to make noise on the news, but not really follow up with the quality materials that kids deserve.
    It is worth reading the article by Kelly Faircloth in Jezebel – GoldieBlox Means Well But Doesn’t Live Up to the Hype – to get another opinion about this important subject.

  2. Fantastic read! I have another angle which may add to this conversation. I was recently tapped to help a father of two create a line of toys called Pixi Kits which we will be launching on Kickstarter February 3rd.
    The impetus behind the project is simple enough; he enjoyed building models with his son, and there was no shortage of car and fighter jet kits to build. However when it came time to enjoy a similar activity with his daughter, he couldn’t find anything which really complimented the experience with his boy. Therefore, the very nature of the idea became gender-specific, as he set out to create what can be loosely described as “model kits for girls.”
    We set about building a line and a brand, integrating proven aspects of evergreen brands like Littlest Pet Shop and taking notes on what we liked and disliked from the “STEM For Girls” brands like Goldieblox and Roominate. Everything from our brand name, to our backstory and characters, to our package design is meant to attract and empower girls in an effort to bring them into play patterns not typically associated with girl’s toys. We have found in our classroom focus testing however that boys are just as attracted to the toys as the girls.
    What we didn’t realize from the beginning is that, with taking what had previously been viewed as “boy play patterns” and adapting them to inspire girls, is that there is an inherent attraction to the play for boys. Had we been short-sighted in branding a girl-focused line, at the risk of making boys feel excluded? Would a “true” gender-neutral branding have been better, while still clearly maintaining that we are fulfilling a need for girls in the market?
    Of course this article does a great job of speculating on what comes next; the sea change has occurred, “STEM For Girls” is part of our cultural (and industry) conversation. Whatever evolution continues to occur, it’s a very interesting time for the business of play!

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