I have to admit, it’s a pretty good time to be a girl who’s interested in STEM.
We have a deluge of programs specifically catering to girls and underrepresented minorities that have an interest in a future STEM career. These programs range from one-day conferences to full summer camps.
Moreover, TV shows for young children have an array of girl scientists that truly help girls see themselves as smart and inventive. Though none are the protagonist of their own show, I do appreciate smart cartoon girls like Sandy Cheeks of SpongeBob SquarePants, Mary and Susan Test of Johnny Test, and Maddie Fenton of Danny Phantom.
To be honest, I’m pretty upset that I’m not a little girl anymore.
Being a girl and having awesome parents who buy you creative toys is a pretty sweet deal these days. I remember getting fashionable Barbies (that I rarely played with) and porcelain dolls (that I was not allowed to play with). I loved changing their clothes and playing with their hair, but they didn’t do anything except be pretty.
Now, even Barbie is into STEM!
But one thing hasn’t changed – and that’s our incessant need to pinkify and feminize every. single. toy. that’s targeted toward girls.
As a woman in STEM who wears her femininity with pride, I won’t suggest that feminine attributes are negative and have no place in STEM – not even the color pink. I wear makeup, I get manicures, I love heels, and purple will always be my favorite color. I was never all that into princesses, but if I had been presented with blue toys as a child, I probably would have scoffed and asked for a girls’ toy instead.
But I grew up under very strict gendered norms – and that’s why I never saw myself as an engineer, and why no one else did either.
I don’t want to diminish the importance of girls wanting science kits and sports equipment in their favorite colors and with their favorite cartoons. They should absolutely be able to find a Frozen-themed set of binoculars and a pink Darth Vader costume. In fact, I love how these toys break gendered stereotypes and force us to revise our view of femininity as delicate and fragile.
But these toys should exist, period. They shouldn’t exist only in the store aisle designated for girls, and they shouldn’t be the automatic response from toy companies to our demands for inclusivity.
Campaigns that have an interest in dismantling sexist tropes that keep girls away from STEM shouldn’t assume that making a toy pink will be enough. Because it won’t be.
We have to put in the work of exposing girls to women in STEM, so that they can see a real life example of what they can be! We need to support their interests and stop worrying about whether they’ll like something more if it’s pink. Girls, just like boys, can like science and math just because they’re cool.
It’s not an overnight fix. As with every feminist cause, the change we demand is never about rearranging a few things, but dismantling and restarting.
But so long as we keep assuming that the only way girls will be interested in STEM is by making it pink and glittery and princessy, we won’t make any great strides toward creating more female scientists, engineers, and mathmeticians.
Here are four reasons why.
1. Pinkified Toys Come with the Risk of Further Stereotyping Girls
When Goldiblox, arguably the most famous STEM toy for girls, claims to want to “disrupt the pink aisle” and still only makes toys in shades of pastel pinks and purples, you know we have a problem.
When we target pink toys to just girls, we’re inevitably suggesting that they’re a special interest group, that they’re not like boys, and that they need a whole new set of toys just for their pretty little glittery brains.
It’s a lot easier to make a product pink and slap a princess label on it than it is to remove the stigma that girls are just not that into STEM. But pink toys aren’t solving the problem – because girls are still bombarded with a variety of sexist advertisements that are honestly a lot more tempting.
Makeup, clothing, princesses, and castles are staples of girlhood in this Disney-loving world. A few pink STEM toys just won’t able to compete with thousands of other toys insisting on turning girls into pampered princesses.
We teach children that colors and interests are directly related to their gender, and then they see all these negative images associated with their abilities, likes, and dislikes, solely based on their gender.
This is often corrected by making toys gender-neutral. However, gender-neutral has been used as code for “things that won’t make boys look too girly” for far too long.
This is problematic – because what gender-neutral should truly mean is that toys and clothing for children should be accessible to children of all genders and orientations, regardless of the labels that their parents have set for them.
A better option is to destigmatize what pink stands for so that the color isn’t associated with a stereotypical view of girlhood.
Until pink is as neutral a color as yellow, we risk teaching children that they’re fundamentally different and require entirely different set of toys to learn the exact same thing.
2. It Pigeonholes Girls into a Narrow Idea of Girlhood
The stereotyping of girls doesn’t begin or end with colors. STEM toys for girls also overwhelmingly have themes relating to princesses, makeup, and other supposedly “girly” inclinations.
A particularly cringing example was this wildly critiqued commercial. As part of the Women in Research and Innovation campaign, the European Commission created a video to inspire girls and show them that “Science! It’s a girl thing!” Which could have been really cool.
But the commercial has three girls strutting down a catwalk-laboratory hybrid in heels and fashionable outfits. None of them do any actual science-related activities. Instead, images of them strutting in cute outfits are interspersed with images of makeup and random chemistry sets, overflowing with colorful liquids.
Of course, the “I” in science was a lipstick.
Now, I love lipstick. But what’s irritating is the lazy assumption that all girls are into makeup – and the lack of any efforts to pique their imagination by showing them the thrill in real scientific discoveries.
The video took a narrow view of girls’ interests and turned it into an advertising campaign. They may have been trying to show girls that they can be glamorous and love makeup and still be into STEM, but ultimately, what happened was that they reinforced stereotypes that girls need STEM to be about makeup in order for them to be interested in it!
3. It Reinforces the Idea That Girls Aren’t Naturally Interested in STEM
This focus with making STEM toys relevant to girls is also evident in the way LEGO responded to our protests that they make their toys more inclusive. Instead of including girls in their marketing campaigns and advertisements, which is all they really needed to do, they came out with LEGO Friends – just for girls!
They should have already had pink and purple LEGOs, and castle sets, and princesses. These aren’t interests for girls only, but we continue to tell children that they are. So when the toy company had to come up with a way to appeal to young girls, this is what they added.
What we truly wanted LEGO to do was to include girls in their ads and make their toys in a variety of colors to encompass a wide variety of children and their interests. Instead, LEGO saw girls as easy marketing opportunities, rather than complex, smart young people.
Girls need the STEM fields to see them as curious and imaginative human beings with the potential for discovery and innovation.
Why can’t we believe that our girls can be interested in STEM if we only show them the possibilities in these fields? We certainly don’t go to these extremes for boys.
The truth is that children aren’t born loving either blue and trucks or pink and princesses. One gender is not more inclined to love or be better at STEM. And color aren’t the solution a larger cultural problem. They just exacerbate it.
4. STEM Toys for Girls Paint Inaccurate Ideas of STEM Careers
STEM careers aren’t talents that we’re born with. They’re professions, like many others, learned through education, curiosity, and a lot of support.
And while we may argue ad nauseum about how boys have better spatial skills and girls do better in math and science, it’s not an argument with any validity when it comes to the real reason why women and people of color are so underrepresented in STEM.
No one believes they’re capable of this success – and as much as we try to push coding Barbie onto girls, they’ll grow up and be inundated with negative images and implicit biases about their abilities and purpose.
As seen in the above mentioned example of the It’s a girl thing! video, we’re simply turning STEM into a fashion show in the hopes that it will catch the attention of girls. What I notice is how incredibly dangerous it is to strut around in heels while not wearing any safety goggles, clothing, or footwear in a laboratory.
I would have loved that commercial as a kid. It was cute, bubbly, and girly. I’m all about that! But, our girls deserve better.
They’re smart. And they’re capable of learning complicated subjects without the need for theatrics.
There’s nothing wrong with giving them an accurate portrayal of our careers in STEM because they are truly exciting – even without all the glitter.
Future STEM-inists aren’t going to stay little girls forever. One day, they’ll grow up and realize that STEM isn’t just about making glitter nail polish, but wearing that nail polish while designing an amazing new application or building.
I am a woman in a deeply masculine working environment – and I love to present as feminine. I wear heels, and skirts, and pink lipsticks to the office. On days when I’m on site, I wear boots and a hard hat, but the lipstick stays! My hair is dyed like a galaxy, with strands of cobalt and amethyst.
I live and breathe femininity. I get as excited about pink toys as anyone else.
But our refusal to let go of gendered stereotypes? No one should be excited about that.
As we move toward a more inclusive view of STEM, I hope to see more inclusive toys for children. It will take a while, because unlearning all that we’ve been taught about gender is a long process – and it’s not one many parents are capable of practicing on a daily basis.
The solution is never to tell girls that they shouldn’t like pink or princesses. Belittling traditionally feminine likes is not the feminism I’m willing or interested in pushing. But I am into feminism that doesn’t back down and doesn’t take scraps.
When we ask toy makers to do better, we’re not just talking about pink toys. We want girls to be part of the concept, design, and implementation of every toy. We want girls to be included in advertisements and commercials, alongside boys, for all types of toys. We want children to grow up with an understanding that they can pursue anything that interests them.
Girls need representation. Because if she can see it, she can be it.
Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.