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This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.

This article first appeared in Make: Volume 41.

Take a 15-minute trip to a big-box store and you’ll see the girls’ aisle dominated by pink toys — dolls, play sets, games, and dress-up clothing, all in various shades of pink. Aside from the color, the toys share another similarity: They all encourage specific patterns of play that focus on role-play, nurturing, and domestic crafting. Conversely, the boys’ aisle is full of action figures, erector sets, blasters, and cars — toys that highlight action, building, and violence.

Gender-based toy marketing is nothing new, but the impact on our children shapes their futures. According to the National Institute for Play, “play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions.” If we limit the play patterns for girls through the use of segregated toys, they will experience only a narrow view of the world, suggesting each gender can excel only in certain areas.

For girls, the message is: I cannot be good in math and science. In a culture charged with strong gender expectations and social pressures, young girls develop a distorted idea of their expected role in life and strive to live up to skewed ideals that fall short of their potential. The message has been so pervasive that today, women are heavily under-represented among working engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.

There are a few new engineering toys specifically designed for girls that are aimed at combatting this effect. GoldieBlox and Roominate strive to capture girls’ imagination before they lose interest in science and math. Created by female engineers, these toys focus on building, designing, and innovating, play patterns usually offered only to boys. However, they also incorporate elements of traditional girl toys, like dollhouses, parades, and tree houses. Some critics worry that the pastel colors and overall premise — girls can only tackle girly problems — further highlights the gender messaging that plagues the rest of the toy aisle. Still, parents often see these toys as a refreshing gateway to more advanced interests, teaching skills and concepts that might lead to STEAM fields.

In addition to engineering toys targeted at girls, some toymakers are creating gender-neutral toys. If we want to transform the toy market, we need to break the rules and work to eliminate gender-typed toys, and support toymakers who do the same.

Still, gender-specific toys are pervasive, and it is difficult to find mainstream toys that are designed for both sexes and endorsed by both parent and child. As we design, make, and buy STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) toys, we should think about the message they send to children.
Toys and activities that support types of play that defy gender stereotypes will teach the skills, experiences, and intuition that foster an aptitude for STEAM fields. When faced with challenges in math and science, girls will receive a message of competence and confidence.

There’s no easy solution; it’ll take time, and change will have to come one girl at a time. We can make a more immediate and significant impact with our girls by encouraging them to play with whatever toys interest them, despite their color.

The key for parents is not to push their daughters one way or the other — not every girl should be, or will want to be, an engineer. Instead, the goal is to offer a variety of toys and a chance for hands-on discovery and making, either at home or in a local makerspace, and then let them choose for themselves. If we foster these skills, it will give them the chance to explore their own interests, not limited to the opportunities defined by their gender.