This Toy Probably Isn't the Answer to the Women-in-Science Disparity

Construction toys for girls are cool, but they are nothing revolutionary.

A Stanford Engineer Figured Out A Real Reason Fewer Women Code,” one headline read.

Did she?!

This Awesome Ad, Set to the Beastie Boys, Is How to Get Girls to Become Engineers,” another promised.

Is it?!

I am so excited for the study that tracks the girls who: Use this toy exclusively, avoid all heteronormative outside influences, somehow survive high school as proud math-lovers, and then go on to pick a college major. That will surely prove its effectiveness.

Goldiblox

This is a slick commercial, and it seems like a fun, educational toy. More power to GoldieBlox if it manages to make more kids interested in learning.

At the same time, educational construction toys aimed at girls have been around for decades. There are pink Tinker toys, pink Lincoln Logs, and pink Legos. I had cases full of gender-neutral K’NEX as a kid, and here I am in the humanities like a stereotypical female. I am not sure why. Perhaps at some point I reasoned, rightly or wrongly, that making a roller-coaster out of plastic widgets on a Saturday afternoon was not the same as spending your life solving complex engineering problems.

It’s true that parents are likelier to pick out “girly” toys for their daughters, but even at the age of two, before they can say “Python,” girls are also more likely to gravitate toward traditionally feminine toys.

Even Debra Sterling, GoldieBlox’ inventor, relies on gender differences for her marketing strategy: "Girls love stories and characters, whereas all the construction toys are building for the sake of building," she told the Los Angeles Times. The toys’ mascot is Goldie, who does indeed wear overalls, rather than a princess dress, but is pretty and blond nonetheless.

Nobody knows why more women don’t go into engineering. Studies have pointed to a dearth of female role models, the prevalence of sexism, or just personal preference. Some research indicates that even women who are good at math and science in high school and early college tend to go into medicine or biology, rather than physics or engineering. Other studies have found that both boys and girls in the U.S. shy away from math in high school—well after their GoldieBlox years have passed—because it’s viewed as “uncool.” It’s also not clear that stereotypical gender roles, such as the “princess” phenomenon Sterling tries to combat, are the issue. Gender roles in Russia are rigid, yet in the 1980s, 58 percent of Russian engineers were women.

The STEM gender imbalance is a decades-long, thorny problem, and an important one to work on. But it doesn’t help us if we herald every new contraption as “inspiring girls to become builders."

Or as one parent whose daughter didn't take to GoldieBlox put it: "It is very unlikely that we will be able to buy our way to equality." 

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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