STEM gets sexy

In this edition of Out of the Sandbox, Wendy Smolen explores the topic of girls and STEM activities, looking at the gender-marketing of products that promote these activities.
June 24, 2015

Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt has a problem with female scientists. His overtly sexist remarks led him to resign from his position at University College London last week. It also created a maelstrom of opinions on the current status of women in STEM fields.

Fueling the fire is a report by The Center for Talent Innovation revealing that gender bias is a common denominator for women in the fields of science, engineering and technology, who sadly admit they are likely to quit within a year.

So what does this have to do with “us”?

I see two problems. Our expectations about girls and STEM activities. And gender-marketing the products that promote these activities.

A study published in the Association for Psychological Science found that gender differences in attitudes towards and expectations about math careers and ability are evident by kindergarten. Age five. By the time they get to high school, less than 20% of girls take the A.P. computer science test. In 2013, women made up 14% of all computer science graduates—down from 36% in 1984!

The messages we send girls (as well as boys) before they can even read stay with them for life. Kids learn skills and values they carry forward through the toys we’re creating, the stories we’re telling, and the games we’re playing. Unfortunately, Tim Hunt isn’t alone in thinking that science is really a boy thing. Too many marketers still insist girls will only play with blocks if they’re pink, or apps if they’re about princesses. By creating boy and girl products, segregated toy aisles, color-coded cues, and gender-biased packaging, we’re reinforcing the very cultural differences we hope the STEM (and other) toys will dispel. Gender-neutral products for young kids—such as rainbow-hued Tiggly Counts, toys based on characters from gold-standard shows like Sesame Street, and thinking games that cross gender roles like Toca Kitchen 2—are a great way to start. Highly engaging activities like the amazingly interactive Stem Carnival from Two Bit Circus or The Global Cardboard Challenge from Imagination Foundation are equally geared to both boys and girls.

But even wonderful, intelligent, innovative STEM products sometimes unconsciously promote the same sexist message. Companies such as Roominate, Goldiblox, LEGO and K’NEX all make toys that encourage and empower left-brain thinking in girls. But here’s the catch: They’re girl-ified. Roominate’s lavender, orange and turquoise pieces are used to build “chateaus” and “estates.” Goldiblox also tends toward the same lavenders, turquoise and pinks. And the highly successful LEGO Friends line and new girl-focused K’NEX kits center around girlfriends and animals…using, you guessed it, pink and lavender pieces. Not a “masculine” black, red or green piece to be found.

Although there’s no denying that these products entice girls (and their parents) to build, invent and play differently, their color-coded message is still distressing.

As producers, marketers and retailers of STEM products, we have both the power and responsibility to institute change. We can’t continue to send the message that girls need special incentives to enjoy the challenges of STEM.  Let’s start with colors. Why not make black the new pink?


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