Toy story: gender profiling in STEM from the ground up?

13 Nov 2015

It’s very easy to fall into the ‘pink for girls’, ‘blue for boys’ attitude when it comes to children. But should these differences manifest in toys, books and other key influencers?

An image from many moons ago caught our attention this morning, that of a pair of childrens’ socks: pink, with a little blonde girl on them, saying ‘I’m too pretty to do maths’, they ticked all the boxes you don’t want ticked.

It got us thinking about how toys and accessories for children can play such a stark role in forming the gender divide we currently see in STEM.

Right across the spectrum, workforces are dominated by men. The higher up you go in a company, the more likely you are to be a bloke.

In the various sciences, of all industries, this is remarkably counterproductive as the key premise of research, opinions and ideas is immediately undermined by a curtailing of the gene pool, so to speak.

So when toys like science experiments, or tool kits, are plastered with ‘For Boys’ stickers in stores, that can’t be a good thing – the same is true of books, quite clearly, too.

This is something Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge, discussed recently.

“We need to change the way we think about boys and girls and what’s appropriate for them from a very early age. Does the choice of toys matter? I believe it does,” she said ahead of becoming the British Science Association’s president.

“We introduce social constructs by stereotyping what toys boys and girls receive from the earliest age. ‘Girls’ toys’ are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.”

Lady Hammer Pink

The examples are everywhere. However, I was still surprised to come across this doozy of a hammer, for a lady, on Unnecessarilygenderedproducts. Not a toy, for a child, a genuine hammer, called Lady Hammer Pink.

It turns out this isn’t something that stops when we reach adulthood, but surely the seeds are sewn long before then.

Let Toys Be Toys is a campaign worth noting in this regard, set up on the back of a discussion on Mumsnet a few years ago about childrens’ Halloween costumes.

It has since spawned into Let Books Be Books, too, and the Unnecessarilygenderedproducts Tumblr is a fine resource as well.

Children looking at toys image via Shutterstock

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic