By Jennifer Perrow, originally published on Parentology July 20, 2019
Take a trip to the toy section of just about any store and you’ll notice definite gender segregation. However, a closer look reveals many of these toys are becoming more similar. The reason? STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math specialties) and the recent focus on creating a more gender-equal workforce.
STEM-related careers are typically among the highest–paid. The underrepresentation of women in these fields is a significant factor in the gender pay gap. However, enrollment in STEM degree programs continues to be dominated by men. In 2017, only 37 percent of all STEM degrees in the US were earned by women.
The Tides Are Changing
For years, it was believed the overwhelming representation of men in STEM careers was due to males having a stronger aptitude for math and science. It’s now been proven there’s virtually no gender difference in aptitude. So what’s to blame? Turns out, gender stereotyping plays a significant role.
Research shows beliefs regarding which subjects are targeted towards certain genders strongly influences an individual’s basic interests and career choices. This is especially alarming when considering these beliefs are formed as early as the age of six.
In a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), it was determined women and minorities who perform well in STEM courses in high school, choose STEM majors in college, or enter the STEM workforce after college graduation, possess a strong “science identity” that was nurtured over their lifetime.
Terrell L. Strayhorn, PhD, Vice President of Academic & Student Affairs at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, who led the NSF study, tells Parentology, “Women [in the study] traced their STEM career choices to early exposure to such toys and childhood play that expanded their knowledge of the world, developed their motor skills, and fostered their cognitive, emotional, and social development.”
Strayhorn continues, “My participants consistently talked about growing up with ‘cool gadgets’ or ‘techie toys’ that seemed to nurture creativity, encourage experimentation, and inspire wonder about the world and how it works. In some cases, my young, would-be scientists/engineers would break a toy, then challenge themselves to put it back together again.”
What’s to Be Done?
Historically, male-targeted toys, such as erector sets and LEGO kits, have been more STEM-focused. Even action figures have tended to be grounded in the world of science fiction. Girls, on the other hand, were being marketed Barbies, baby dolls, and tea sets.
Today, toy manufacturers have taken heed and are making changes. LEGO has introduced a line geared specifically toward girls, including their Flower Gears sets. Mattel formed a Barbie Global Advisory Council of 12 experts in STEM, culture and identity to assist with product development.
Additionally — new companies, among them GoldieBlox and STEM Girls Books — are popping up to meet the demand of STEM toys.
Have a daughter and want to make sure her future is wide open? Knock down the gender walls when shopping in the toy aisle.